Monday, December 31, 2012

Quote for December

It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.

~ Anne Frank

Poems for New Year's Eve

Robert Burns
If you’re like most people, you can’t name a poem written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. If you can, I salute you and recommend you get out more often. Burns wrote in the eighteenth century and is probably most well known for something a lot of people don’t realize he did. According to the website Burns Country, Burns wrote in a letter to an acquaintance, "There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul. You know I am an enthusiast in old Scotch songs. I shall give you the verses on the other sheet... Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment! There is more of the fire of native genius in it than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians."

The song Burns spoke of was Auld Lang Syne, an ancient tune which is still sung at parties around the world to ring in the New Year. It’s impossible to say with certainty who wrote the original lyrics and its history is all but certain, Burns is generally credited with penning at least two stanzas of the version we’re familiar us:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

Thomas Hardy
The popular tune Auld Lang Syne connects Burns (if only in a Five Degrees of Kevin Bacon way) to the English poet Thomas Hardy. Hardy was born June 2, 1840, in the village of Upper Bockhampton, in Southwestern England. By the end of the 19th century, Hardy had established himself as a poet and taken residence in Dorchester where the ancient Scottish New Year’s Eve tune surely floated on the chilly wind as the old century came to an end and humanity rushed forward into the 1900’s.

On December 30, 1900 (the date that in Hardy’s mind marked the end of the 19th century) Hardy wrote his poem, The Darkling Thrush. The somber poem reflects a darker image of the beginning of the age of ragtime and jazz than we’re used to.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

Lord Alfred Tennyson
In Brittan New Years has a direct connection with poetry. For centuries the resident British Poet Laureate has been charged with the grand task of writing a poem to ring in the New Year. The tradition was established by Laureate Nahum Tate who penned eight New Year odes between 1693 and 1708. In fact, we owe the phrase "ring out the old, ring in the new" to Laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam:

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

That's a lot of poetry information for one day, but I think it's important to avoid myopically focusing on the west and it's poetic links with the turning year. Japanese poet and Buddhist priest, Kobayashi Issa, authored a pair of lovely haiku on the subject:

Kobayashi Issa
New Year’s Day

New Year's Day--
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

New Year’s Morning

New Year's morning:
the ducks on the pond
quack and quack.

Coleman Barks
I know I should dedicate more time to the subject of New Year's poetry, but I'd be here until next New Year's Eve and I'd still fail to do the subject justice. I wanted to close out with a modern American poet, something a little more accessible before heading off to celebrate the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013.

New Year's Day Nap
by Coleman Barks

Fiesta Bowl on low.
My son lying here on the couch
on the "Dad" pillow he made for me
in the Seventh Grade. Now a sophomore
at Georgia Southern, driving back later today,
he sleeps with his white top hat over his face.

I'm a dancin' fool.

Twenty years ago, half the form
he sleeps within came out of nowhere
with a million micro-lemmings who all died but one
piercer of membrane, specially picked to start a brainmaking,
egg-drop soup, that stirred two sun and moon centers
for a new-painted sky in the tiniest
ballroom imaginable.

Now he's rousing, six feet long,
turning on his side. Now he's gone.

Sunday, December 30, 2012


The likely ancestor to the postcard seems to be envelopes bearing printed pictures known as patriotic covers. Thousands of envelopes bearing patriotic pictures were mailed during the American Civil War (1861-1865). The first postcard in the US was printed by J. P. Carlton in 1861 and remained available until they were replaced in 1873 by US government postcards.

To look at the origin of the postcard, we have to go to Hungary. Dr. Emanuel Herrmann suggested the first postcard in 1869, and the Hungarian government accepted the design that same year. In 1870 the first regularly printed card appeared, a historical design, produced in connection with the Franco-German War. In 1872 the first advertising postcard appeared in Great Britain. In 1874 the first German card appeared, showing the Eiffel Tower. A decade later postcards would enter their heyday.

The history lesson is nice, but why am I giving you all the postcard trivia? Well, just the other day I made a trip to the post office. My goal was to send a manuscript in for consideration. To accomplish this goal I needed to buy a postcard that I could enclose so the publisher could confirm they’d received the manuscript (more important than you might think). I checked the racks of tape, envelopes, and boxes. I looked at the carousel of greeting cards. I even looked among the commemorative stamps and first-day-covers, but there were no postcards to be found. So, I checked at the desk and got a confused look, in fact I had to ask a second time and then she had to check in the back and with a supervisor. The end result, the US post office had no postcards.

I’m a romantic about a lot of things, from air and train travel to dancing on a Friday night. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Luddite. I love my high speed internet and cable television. But, in a lot of ways, I think we all could benefit from a slower world. If I can take my post office’s being dumbfounded by a request for a postcard as a sign of their disappearance as a form of communication, I have to think it’s also a symptom of our ever-accelerating world. Some of it’s understandable, I mean you can tweet, post, text, and email virtually free and your message will arrive instantly while sending a postcard requires buying the postcard and postage and the recipient won’t get the message for days at the best.

What’s the upside of postcards? In a word, the same upside a real letter has over an email. The lack of immediacy leaves time for thought. Though you can read and re-read an email before sending it, the medium encourages quick, type-and-send messages. Nobody writes masterful email messages. There never will be a book of the collected email messages of a famous person. Nobody will ever go to their keepsake file to re-read that old email message they got from their true love. Likewise, you’ll never get a beautiful email from Maui, Tokyo, Paris, or Rome. Opening an attachment doesn’t have the same impact as opening your mailbox on a cold January day to find a little card that carries with it the scent of summer breezes and exotic paradises. Letters and postcards bring romance, no extra postage required.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Clothing of 2000!

In honor of New Years, I thought I'd show what the futurists of the past though about what would be retro fashion by now. Enjoy!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy Solstice and Gabrielle Ray

Fame and memory are fleeting. Ten years from now the pop-culture figures that occupy our minds will be little more than generation-demarking trivia questions and a hundred years from now nobody will remember or care about what we thought of as hot or scandalous. Life works like that; it’s a blackboard not a stone tablet. What we create today will be erased by future generations and the board will be overwritten.
This deep train of thought came to me today while restoring some links after having my hard drive reformatted and Windows reinstalled. If you’ve read anything in this blog you’re aware that I have a fondness with old photographs and that has led me to add most every such site I come across to my favorites list. As I went through the process of verifying the old links actually worked, I came across a rather odd Christmas image. Since it’s solstice I figured I’d post it to the blog as a sort of “happy longest night of the year and by the way we didn’t get blown up by some Mayan catastrophe” card. As I started prepping the image for posting, though, I started wondering about the woman behind the image.
She was born Gabrielle Elizabeth Clifford Cook, the fourth child of William Austin Cook and Anne Maria Elizabeth née Holden in Cheadle, Stockport, England. She first appeared on stage at the Royal Princess’s Theatre in London's West End where the then ten year old played Eveleen in a John Hollingshead musical play entitled Miami. The following year she played a role in A Celebrated Case. In 1899, she appeared in Sinbad the Sailor at the Hammersmith Lyric Opera House where manager Ben Greet engaged her to tour with his company after noticing her dancing skills.
As the early part of the 20th century rolled by, Ray’s fame grew. She’d started playing at leading West End venues. Her beauty made her photograph a sought after commodities and trade publications and photographers of the day vied for the chance to capture her image.
In 1902 George Edwardes hired Ray to understudy Gertie Millar (who would later become Duchess of Dudley) in The Toreador at the Gaiety Theatre. She then took over for the acrobat and burlesque actress Letty Lind in the Apollo Theater’s production of The Girl from Kays. Ray’s fame grew with her portrayal of Thisbe in The Orchid. Ray appeared in Edwardes' productions throughout 1905 and 1911, including three successes at the Prince of Wales's Theatre: Lady Madcap, The Little Cherub, See See, The Merry Widow (running for 778 performances at Daly's Theatre), The Dollar Princess, and Peggy.
So far what we’ve read is all well and good, but it’s little more than a recount of Ms. Ray’s career. It’s hard to know what it was like for her as a person, all I can be certain of from what I’ve read is that she was a beautiful and talented woman who made a career on the stage. Talent alone doesn’t lead to success, though.
Ray’s success is mentioned in an issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine (Vol. 50 December 1910 – May 1911), and this piece might shed a little light on the sort of pressure Ray faced. The article, entitled Stage Beauty and Brains, is targeted at an American audience and discusses the differences between American and European “girls” entering show business. The article can be summed up into a few points:

1.       European actresses have it easy, all they need to do is rely on their prettiness until they garner the ardor of some minor member of the aristocracy and their lives are set.

2.       Legitimate American actresses would never be satisfied to simply marry a nobleman, besides American men are far too “sensible” to fall for a pretty face!

3.       In Europe if a girl is pretty a producer will simply write and adapt pieces for her and she need only appear in silly musical comedies until the aforementioned duke happens by.

4.       American girls want to be “legitimate” actresses, which means never stooping to lowbrow musical comedy!

5.       In fact, European actresses are so beautiful that, if they were smart, they’d be sickened by their own beauty!

To quote the article:
“Take Gabrielle Ray, for instance. She is a beauty for sure, and she is much cleverer than she is allowed to be. She has been before the London public for several years, but except as an exceedingly pretty girl she is unrecognized.”

Obviously, the bulk of this article is vapid patriotic crap. America in the early 20th century was in the process of standing apart from old Europe. The American Civil War had ended in 1865, within the memory of a large portion of the population, and burning issues such as women’s suffrage were further dividing the public. Authors in magazines such as Cosmopolitan were defining what being American meant, so their bias probably is understandable to some extent. But what does this tell us about Gabrielle Ray?
Let’s start by dispelling the opinion in the Beauty and Brains article. Some of the top American box office draws during the teens were the Ziegfeld Follies, and Jerome Kern musicals such hits as Oh, Boy! and Leave It To Jane.  Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, and George and Ira Gershwin all had hits during this decade. We’ll say that this, more or less, does away with the image of the legitimate actress and the sensible American man. This leaves the conceit that European producers will write to their star’s beauty and the concept that all a European girl need do is marry into the right family.
I think we can all agree that every star, whether in the modern age or at the beginning of the 20th century, has writers and producers who are eager to write for them. How else do we explain Rock of Ages starring the noted voices of Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, and Catherine Zeta-Jones.  Frankly theater is a predatory business and you’re only as attractive as the returns on your last show – in other words, if the seats are empty, you won’t be acting long. So let’s pitch the idea that being pretty makes European directors crazy enough to move Earth, sky, and libretto for a sweet face.
What’s left is marriage to nobility. It’s true that notable European actresses married into high society. Through marriage Gertie Millar became the Duchess of Dudley.  Edwardian era views of marriage could be summarized as:

·         Marry a person whom you have known long enough to be sure of his or her worth - if not personally, at least by reputation.

·         Marry a person who is your equal in social position. If there be a difference either way, let the husband be superior to the wife. It is difficult for a wife to love and honor a person whom she is compelled to look down upon.
Additionally, divorce was looked on as a source of scandal for the woman:
“The divorce court itself was a source of entertainment. On almost any day, particularly if a scandalous case was being tried, a line some fifty or sixty people deep, made mostly of women, queued up at Royal Courts of Justice the for a seat in the public gallery. This was a considerable annoyance to junior barristers, who, especially when an aristocratic trial brought a crush, were perpetually unable to find a sufficient number of seats.”

In 1912 Ray announced her retirement to marry the wealthy Eric Loder however she did not appear at the well-attended scheduled ceremony at St Edwards Roman Catholic Church in Windsor because Loder failed to sign the prenuptial contract. The marriage took place soon afterwards and within two years Loder had strayed and the couple divorced in 1914.

The divorce took a toll on Ray. She returned to the stage in 1915 in the role of Estelle in the musical Betty at the Gaiety Theatre and, in the following year, in the revue Flying Colours at the London Hippodrome. For nearly a decade afterwards, she appeared occasionally in provincial variety tours, finally leaving the stage about 1924.
Ray struggled with depression and alcohol abuse, suffering a mental breakdown in 1936 and she was institutionalized for nearly forty years afterwards, dying at Holloway Sanatorium in Egham, Surrey, England in 1973, at the age of 90.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


I spent a good part of Saturday night sitting on the couch, dressed and ready to go to a Christmas dance, while MSNBC spun theory after theory about the horrors of Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut. To be honest, the grief and feelings of powerlessness have overwhelmed my holiday spirit. No amount of carols, lights, or Christmas packages that can overcome the tragedy that happened on Friday.

I write fantasies, fanciful fictions about worlds that never existed. As an author it’s my job to conceive of things others can’t, but I can’t wrap my mind around what’s happened. Maybe, by their very nature, unimaginable crimes can’t be comprehended, explained, or reasoned away. Seeing the images and hearing the voices of those who lost so much it’s difficult to keep hope alive in your heart. It’s hard to watch and know you can do nothing…or can you?

Perhaps the one and only thing that each of us can do is resist the death of hope. It might be naive to believe we can make the world a safer and better place. I’m not sure I fully know what safe or better mean. I don’t have a list of steps that will get us to that ideal world and, frankly, I’d be suspicious of anyone who claims they do. The only think I know is I believe it can happen and I’m willing to work for it.

For now I send my condolences and thoughts to those who are grieving.