Henry V

Who was the greatest motivational speaker of all time? With all due respect to Knute Rockne and Matt Foley, it has to be Shakespeare’s Henry V in the play of the same name. For Henry V gives not one, but two, of the most rousing speeches in the history of the English language as he urges his men forward against the French. And Henry also shows that his eloquence can be employed in furtherance of less martial goals, too.

There is not much of a trace of the rascally, irresponsible, reckless Prince Hal of Henry IV, Parts i and II in the new king we see in Henry V. From the very first scenes, where he quizzes legal experts on Salic law and its impact on his claim to the French throne, Henry V is presented as a smart, careful, sober leader, capable of ferreting out traitors and calmly dealing with ambassadors and envoys, with nary a cup of sack about him. Indeed, his quiet and determined response to the goading and dismissive gift of tennis balls from the French Dauphin shows that he is embarrassed by his former antics and resolved to overcome them. Shakespeare further emphasizes the change in character by having Sir John Falstaff, the rogue who influenced Prince Hal when we first met him, die offstage.

Henry V is a martial play, with lots of action–more than could easily be shown on an Elizabethan stage. Shakespeare solves that dilemma by making liberal use of a narrator, who repeatedly urges the audience members to use their imaginations as the actors portray scenes in the faraway fields of France:

But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

As as the play progresses, the chorus guides us across time and space to follow the action. And what action! After being insulted by the Dauphin, Henry ferries his troops across the channel to face the haughty, overconfident French. He first shows his rhetorical brilliance at the siege of Harfleur, as he urged his troops forward to take the city: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead.” He adds:

Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

But his speech at the gates of Harfleur is only a hint of Harry’s full motivational gifts, shown as the English prepare for the battle of Agincourt. The English forces have taken Harfleur but are ravaged by illness and lack of food, and we see that the French forces, led by the hopelessly arrogant Dauphin, expect to inflict a crushing defeat. During the pre-dawn hours Henry disguises himself and goes among his men, to learn what his soldiers are thinking, and when they wonder at what the king might be doing, Henry responds: ““I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me.” As he moves on, Henry again reflects on the weight of kingship, as his father did before him.

But when the battle nears, and his men wish they had more soldiers, Henry’s blood is up, and he rises to the occasion to deliver his greatest speech of all, which is worth reprinting in full:

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Inspired by Henry’s speech, the English go on to inflict a crushing defeat on the French. The French sue for peace, and Henry must discard his martial aspect and woo the French princess, Katharine, who speaks only a little English while Henry speaks only a little French. She is suspicious–remarking that “the tongues of pen are full of deceits”–but a humble, self-deprecating, awkward Henry wins her over, steals a kiss that seals the courtship, and remarks:

You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate: there is
more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the
tongues of the French council; and they should
sooner persuade Harry of England than a general
petition of monarchs.

As Henry and Kate prepare for marriage, he stands as the ultimate victor, knowing that their child will inherit the throne of both England and France. But when the chorus enters again, it is to let us know that the moment of triumph is fleeting indeed. When we turn next to Henry VI, hard times lay ahead for the English.

The Shakespeare Project

Richard II

Henry IV, Part I

Henry IV, Part II

Ohio — The Library State

The U.S. Senate and Ohio gubernatorial races got most of the attention in Tuesday’s Ohio primary election. But the election also featured a series of levies, bond issues, and other decisions to be made by Ohio voters. And when you drill down into the results, you find something striking: libraries kicked butt.

In fact, library issues went a perfect 6-0 in the election, and all of them passed resoundingly — garnering, on average, approval votes from 71 percent of voters. In contrast, many school levies and bond issues went down to defeat.

Why do Ohioans vote overwhelmingly for libraries? A representative of the Ohio Library Council says its because Ohioans like the services they offer, and she speculates that the free COVID test kits offered at Ohio libraries during the pandemic might have played a role. I don’t know about the test kits, but I do think that the pandemic helped to drive home how important it is to have a place where you can find books to read, videos to watch, and CDs to listen to while you are social distancing. More generally, I think people like the community element of libraries. In many parts of Ohio, libraries are a source of local pride, and also one of the connections that hold communities together and allow neighbors to see each other. And library issues typically aren’t breaking the bank in terms of what they are asking.

I’m a big library supporter, and we are big-time library users. I think libraries are an important part of the fabric of this country, and I’m glad to see that my fellow Ohioans agree with that sentiment.

Rewatching And Rereading

The new season of Better Call Saul is out. We watched the first two episodes of the new season and realized that we had lost track of many of the plot threads in the two years since the last episode of season five of the show was aired. We’d completely forgotten, for example, that Mike put himself in harm’s way with neighborhood thugs, got beat up, and then was sent to Mexico to recuperate (and, being Mike, fix a window), and we hadn’t recalled all of the nuances of the Mesa Verde/Tucumcari call center plot line, either.

Obviously, we needed to brush up on the BCS characters, so we are going back and rewatching the fifth season to be primed with all of the information needed to enjoy the sixth (and apparently last) season. We briefly toyed with the decision of whether we needed to go back two seasons, or even longer, to fully appreciate what the heck is going on, but decided one season should be sufficient.

This is not a new phenomenon. Whether it is TV shows or books, rewatching or rereading a series has become an increasingly common requirement. It didn’t use to be that way, of course; you could watch a new season of Mission Impossible, or Seinfeld, without remembering all of the different episodes from the season before. But with the complex, continuing plotlines that we see in current TV drama and books, rewatching and rereading has become essential, and you wonder if the creators and authors plan it that way. And of course, the very act of rewatching or rereading, knowing what is coming later, gives a different perspective on the characters and their activities. (Rewatching Better Call Saul, for example, makes me continuously shake my head in wonderment at how the savvy, hyper-cautious Gus and Mike ever got taken in by “Heisenberg” in the first place–or, more accurately, in the post-Better Call Saul world to come.)

The Mother of all rereadings will come if George R.R. Martin ever finishes the final two books in the Game of Thrones series. If that happens, I’ll probably have to go back to the first book and reread the whole series, just to make sure I’m fully up to speed on everything that is happening in Dorne or the Iron Islands or with the reanimated Lady Stoneheart. But I’m guessing I will enjoy every minute.

Henry IV, Part I

I’m pretty sure that Henry IV, Part I is the first Shakespeare play I read from cover to cover. Mr. Will, the enthusiastic teacher who presided over our Shakespeare Seminar class at Upper Arlington High School, wisely picked it to be the first play we read in that course. I suspect he knew that the insult humor and abusive banter between Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff would appeal to the simple minds of teenaged boys—and it did. 

For a time the lads of Shakespeare Seminar reveled in calling each other “whoreson knaves” and “vile standing tucks” and “fat kidneyed rascals.” We loved Falstaff and Hal just as patrons of the Globe Theater did in Shakespeare’s time, and as did English audiences for years thereafter–which is why Falstaff is generally regarded as the single most popular character ever to emerge from the Bard of Avon’s prolific pen. Thus introduced to the humor and “bawdy” side of Shakespeare, we high schoolers were willing to put up with romance, and tragedy, and Hamlet’s angst as we went on to read other plays.

Of course, age brings a different perspective. As I read Henry IV, Part I now, I still enjoy the sallies between Hal and Falstaff at Eastcheap taverns (although I realize, given the changed eddies and currents of slang that have occurred in the centuries since, that I will never understand or appreciate the humor as an Elizabethan audience did)–but I see a lot more in Falstaff than I did nearly 50 years ago.

Shakespeare’s construction of the play may be a sly exercise in misdirection. He explicitly raises the contrast between the wastrel Prince Hal and the rebellious Harry Hotspur in the very first scene, as Henry IV laments how his ne’er-do-well, tavern-haunting son measures up against the victorious warrior Hotspur:

Yea, there thou makest me sad and makest me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.

But this contrast proves to be a bit of a false lead. To be sure, we see the irresponsible Hal at the outset, but ultimately Hal is not so different from Hotspur. Hal rallies to his father’s side, fights to defeat the rebellion, and ultimately kills Hotspur in the climactic battle that brings the play to a close. No, the real contrast is between Hotspur and Falstaff–and not simply because Hotspur is a hothead and Falstaff is perfectly content in playing the clown. Hotspur is unable to curb his own vanity and sense of honor, and it ends up costing him dearly, both in causing him to rebuff the King and bring on the conflict and in needlessly insulting Owen Glendower and losing a much-needed ally. Hotspur’s pride and self-regard prevent him from looking out for his own best interests. Falstaff, on the other hand, is able to swallow jibes and ridicule in the service of his ultimate goal of wine, women, and survival–which means maintaining his relationship with Prince Hal at all costs.

Falstaff’s character leaves a lot of room for interpretation by a skilled actor. He could be played as a buffoon, to be sure, but there is a certain genius in him, and a conniving nature, with ugliness and deviousness lurking just below the surface. He’s not harmless. For all of his surface jolliness, Falstaff is not above robbing innocent travelers, or trying to cheat an honest hostess out of what he owes–but he does it with a roguish charm and shrewdness. A classic example of Falstaff’s quick wit comes when he learns that Prince Hal and Poins set him up to take the money Falstaff had stolen from travelers and are well aware that he has been lying about facing an ever-growing number of brigands. Falstaff abruptly pivots to a different approach, claiming that he was well aware that it was Hal who pilfered the booty:

By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye.
Why, hear you, my masters: was it for me to kill the
heir-apparent? should I turn upon the true prince?
why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules: but
beware instinct; the lion will not touch the true
prince. Instinct is a great matter; I was now a
coward on instinct. I shall think the better of
myself and thee during my life; I for a valiant
lion, and thou for a true prince. But, by the Lord,
lads, I am glad you have the money.

Falstaff and Prince Hal then act out a scene where Hal returns to talk to his father the king, with Falstaff initially playing Henry IV before he and the prince switch roles, so that Falstaff plays Hal and Hal the king. After Hal, as the king, describes Falstaff as the devil who has led Hal astray, Falstaff, as Hal, rises to his own defense:

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

Prince Hal’s chilling response–“I do, I will”–presages the coming pivot in their relationship.

What did Shakespeare think of Falstaff? For all of the Bard’s ability to portray the heights of British pride and patriotism, his treatment of Falstaff shows he well understood the underside of war and the cost of valor. Falstaff recruits a ragged band of soldiers, most of whom don’t survive the final battle. After presenting Hotspur as relentlessly driven by pursuit of “honor,” Shakespeare has Falstaff, in the king’s camp before the battle, give his jaded view of the concept of “honor”:

Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

Still later, when Falstaff feigns death to avoid being killed, and responds to Hal’s expression of sadness at Falstaff’s apparent death, the portly knight makes a further point:

I lie, I am no counterfeit: to die,
is to be a counterfeit; for he is but the
counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man:
but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby
liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and
perfect image of life indeed. The better part of
valour is discretion; in the which better part I
have saved my life.

Is cowardice defensible? Of course, Shakespeare doesn’t say so–but Hotspur dies while Falstaff lives, and indeed goes on to claim that it was he, and not Prince Hal, who finally killed Hotspur, in hopes of gaining a rich reward. But while Falstaff lives on, his special relationship with Hal has not survived. The prince has become a prince and, as the play ends, he looks forward to a further, final battle that will help to quash the rebellion.

40

Today Kish and I celebrate our 40th anniversary. On April 3, 1982, amidst a brisk wind and snow flurries on a wintry spring day in Vermilion, Ohio, we were married, and we have enjoyed 40 happy and wonderful years together since then.

40 is an interesting number. It’s one of digits mentioned most frequently in the Bible–more than 100 times, in fact, and often in connection with highly significant events and Biblical figures. Moses lived in the desert for 40 years, and was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. The great flood that floated Noah’s ark occurred because it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. In all of these Biblical references, 40 seems to be a handy number to capture the concept of a long period of time to deal with a trial or test. I’m happy to report that our 40 years together haven’t had that evident Biblical connotation.

40 is noteworthy for other reasons. “Forty” is said to be the only number in the English language whose letters are in alphabetical order. The standard human pregnancy is 40 weeks long, and the standard nap supposedly gives you “40 winks.” There are 40 spaces on a Monopoly board. And U.S. 40, a highway that runs through Columbus, is right up there with Route 66 as a legendary American roadway and is known as “America’s Main Street.”

All in all, you’d have to conclude that 40 is a pretty good number as numbers go, and one well worth celebrating as our journey continues to number 41 and beyond.

Richard II

I’ve finished Richard II, the first step in my Shakespeare Project, in which I aim to read all of the Bard of Avon’s plays, sonnets, and poems. The Tragedy of King Richard the Second was the fifth of Shakespeare’s history plays and was written in or before 1597, as he was rising to prominence in the London theater scene. The play also is the first of a series of historical plays, written by Shakespeare at different times, that tell the turbulent story of British kings and can be read in historical chronological order from Richard II, through Henry IV, V, and VI, to Richard III. That’s why I’ve chosen Richard II as my starting point.

I had not read Richard II or seen it performed before. It’s an interesting and emotionally compelling play that shows why Shakespeare was becoming the master of the British stage, both in terms of its dramatic structure and its otherworldly writing. The play begins with scenes showing a haughty and greedy King Richard acting with absolute authority as he banishes Henry Bullingbroke in the wake of his dispute with another British nobleman. But Richard was feared to be running England into bankruptcy and ruin, and when the king rashly decides to go to Ireland at a time when Bullingbroke’s father dies and Bullingbroke returns to England to claim his inheritance, the British gentry rally to Bullingbroke’s cause. When Richard returns from his Irish adventure–one which left him seasick as well as devoid of significant support back in England–he learns that he has effectively lost the monarchy and is forced to abdicate, imprisoned, and eventually murdered.

During the course of these events, Richard starts as a money-grubbing and ungrateful tyrant, but ends as a sympathetic (and indeed, pathetic) character. As Richard laments his unhappy fate, we learn that there is more to his character–including the fact that he loves his queen, and she loves him–than we initially understood. Eventually Richard seems to discover the graciousness of spirit and understanding that would have helped him to be a better king when he wielded absolute power . . . but of course it is too late.

And Richard is not the only character of interest in the play. Henry Bullingbroke, who eventually is crowned Henry IV, is presented ambiguously, leaving the actor playing the great latitude to interpret the character. Bullingbroke could be presented as a schemer with designs on the crown from the outset, as a loyal subject who is wronged by the banishment and returns upon his father’s death to be buffeted by events beyond his control to the throne, or as something in between. While Richard’s character stands center state and is sketched in great detail, Bullingbroke is kept in the shadows, and shaded. One of Bullingbroke’s few human moments comes when he seeks to advise his son of events and instructs his aides to look in London taverns for the young man–presaging the plot of Henry IV, Part I, the next play in the chronology that is dominated by the antics of Prince Hal and his foil, Falstaff.

There are lots of passages in the play that attest to Shakespeare’s genius. One favorite for me is this familiar passage about England:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

What’s interesting is that this beautiful, ringing language is not spoken by a proud and boastful man, but instead by the sad, dying John of Gaunt (Bullingbroke’s father) who laments that, thanks to Richard’s unwise and profligate spending, Gaunt’s “dear, dear land” is “now leas’d out–I die pronouncing it–like to a tenement or a pelting farm.” The plot could have been served by a much simpler statement by Gaunt, but part of Shakespeare’s unique brilliance is his ability to convert a passage conveying a basic plot development and turn it into the stuff of art and legend, forever to be known as some of the greatest words ever written about England. How long, I wonder, did it take Shakespeare to write that passage, and did he labor to construct it, or did the words simply flow from his pen?

The same effort to reach for poetic heights rather than settling for easier wording is shown throughout the play, and even in the more explanatory, context-setting, and transitional scenes. A good example comes at the end of a scene where two of the King’s few remaining supporters are discussing the Duke of York, who is charging with maintaining the order in the face of popular unrest while the king is in Ireland. One of the characters says: “Alas, poor duke! The task as he undertakes is numb’ring sands and drinking oceans dry. Where one on his side fights, thousands will fly.”

Another favorite scene occurs when the despondent Queen learns that Richard has been deposed by overhearing a gardener talk to a servant. In Shakespeare’s hands, the garden becomes a metaphor for England itself, and the gardener ruefully recognizes that Richard has missed his chance:

Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks,
Which, like unruly children, make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight:
Give some supportance to the bending twigs.
Go thou, and like an executioner,
Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.
You thus employ’d, I will go root away
The noisome weeds, which without profit suck
The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.

The servant responds:

Why should we in the compass of a pale
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit-trees all upturned, her hedges ruin’d,
Her knots disorder’d and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?

The wise gardener responds:

Hold thy peace:
He that hath suffer’d this disorder’d spring
Hath now himself met with the fall of leaf:
The weeds which his broad-spreading leaves did shelter,
That seem’d in eating him to hold him up,
Are pluck’d up root and all by Bolingbroke,
I mean the Earl of Wiltshire, Bushy, Green.

When the servant asks if those supporters of the king are dead, the gardener responds:

They are; and Bolingbroke
Hath seized the wasteful king. O, what pity is it
That he had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land
As we this garden! We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit-trees,
Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself:
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have lived to bear and he to taste
Their fruits of duty: superfluous branches
We lop away, that bearing boughs may live:
Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,
Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.

Richard II is full of great stuff like this, and well worth a read–especially for the gardeners among us. Now, it’s time to return to more familiar territory: Henry IV, Part I.

The Shakespeare Project

Years ago I bought the Yale Shakespeare from Barnes & Noble, back in the days when people actually went to bookstores. Published in 1993, the book is a colossal, oversized, 1517-page, agate-typed tome that features every play, poem, and sonnet penned by the Bard (in whole or in part, with acknowledgement of disputed provenance), along with historical notes, footnotes, and short biography.

For years, I’ve been intending to read the book from beginning to end, but I’ve never quite gotten around to doing it. Now, armed with new glasses to help with the tiny typeface, equipped with a bright, well-lighted spot that is well-suited to careful reading, and bringing to bear the experience of additional years and some post-pandemic perspective, I’m ready to launch my own personal Shakespeare Project.

The Yale Shakespeare organizes the Bard’s awesome output into sections on “The Comedies,” “The Histories,” and “The Tragedies and the Poems.” Being a history buff, I’m going to start with “The Histories,” and read them in their historical sequence, rather than in the order in which Shakespearean scholars think they were written. I’ll start with Richard II and follow the story of British monarchs through to Henry VI, Part III, and then tackle King John and Henry VIII, which are basically standalone pieces, at the end. When I’m done with the histories I’ll decide whether to turn next to the comedies or the tragedies and the poems.

I’ll report on my progress and reactions as I go. Some of the plays will be familiar, from reading them in classes or seeing them performed, but most will be new to me. And I know very little about the sonnets and poems, so reading them will be a voyage of discovery, too.

Soylent Green And The Bleak Sci-Fi Of The ’60s and ’70s

2022 is not only our fresh new year, it’s also the year in which the 1973 sci-fi thriller Soylent Green was set. Soylent Green envisioned a truly awful 2022: the world was grossly overpopulated, mass starvation provoked regular food riots until the masses received their “soylent” food rations, the environment had been ruined by pollution, and people were at the mercy of a cold-blooded authoritarian police state. The movie allowed Charlton Heston to exercise some of his legendary scenery-chewing acting instincts, including the classic final scene where Heston shouts to the world: “Soylent green is people! It’s people!”

In short, Soylent Green sets a very low bar for our 2022. This year might not be great, but at least it’s unlikely that we’ll be eating each other.

We’re living through a lot of the years in which bleak sci-fi movies and stories were set–Blade Runner, for example, was set in 2019–and the future hasn’t turned out to be as grim as the writers envisioned. There’s always been a pretty strong tradition of horrific futures in science fiction, as writers took whatever seemed to be the problems of the day, multiplied them, and extrapolated them forward into terrible future worlds that were dark, overcrowded, starving, wrecked, merciless, and governed by fascists. (If that tradition holds true, current sci fi writers may well be envisioning distant futures where epidemics rage.)

Of course, most of those visions turned our to be wrong. We haven’t experienced a nuclear holocaust, been terrorized by killer artificial intelligence or intelligent apes, seen our oceans turned to sewage, or experienced planet-wide starvation and horrific plagues. Sci-fi writers of the ’60s and ’70s would no doubt be stunned to learn that one of the biggest health problems in our real world of 2022 isn’t starvation–it’s obesity!

Our Neighborhood Book Nook

One of the best things about our German Village neighborhood is our nearby bookstore, the Book Loft of German Village. It’s just about the perfect bookstore: a multi-floor maze of 32 rooms of books, jigsaw puzzles, calendars, book bags, posters, book-themed refrigerator magnets, and pretty much anything else you would hope to find in a bookstore. It’s got a wide selection of books and the kind of rambling organization that makes a bookstore comfortable, and great. With an odd chair here and there, you can plop down and give a potential purchase some careful study before you commit.

It’s a tradition for me to hit the Loft for some Christmas shopping every holiday season. It’s always a fun visit that yields some impulse purchases, too.

A Christmas Carol

Last night I watched the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol. It has become a holiday tradition of sorts for me: every Christmas season I try to watch at least one of the film versions of Charles Dickens’ classic story of a mean, miserly skinflint who is haunted by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future on Christmas Eve. All of the films present creditable versions of the story, but I particularly like the George C. Scott version because he is so believable as the initially heartless, but ultimately redeemed, Ebenezer Scrooge and because it adopts, verbatim, many of the lines penned by Dickens .

A Christmas Carol was first published on December 19, 1843, meaning that the still-vital character of Scrooge celebrates his 178th birthday today. Dickens, who by then had already begun his long and successful career as a novelist, came up with the idea for the story only a few weeks before, when he went to speak at the Manchester Athenaeum, an organization devoted to helping the urban poor. Dickens was personally receptive to the plight of the downtrodden and impoverished people of England; his father had been thrown into a debtors’ prison, and Dickens had gone to work in a factory at age 12.

Dickens initially thought of publishing a pamphlet on the problems of Want and Ignorance (later personified in his story as the gaunt and frightening children under the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present) that he would call “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.”  But he soon decided his appeal for generosity could be more persuasively presented as a story, and we can all be grateful for that, because it allowed him to create one of the great fictional characters and story arcs in the history of literature. By turning what would have been a dry political polemic into a story, Dickens could couch his message in a powerful tale of regret and redemption. And because he was a masterful writer, Dickens could answer key questions–like how did Scrooge get to be that way?–that allowed him to turn a greedy, unfeeling monster into a sympathetic character by the end of the story. Who doesn’t pity Scrooge and root for him to open his heart, change his ways, and hear Tiny Tim say “God bless us, every one”?

I like watching A Christmas Carol because it inevitably causes each viewer to reflect on their own lives and their own decisions and–hopefully–resolve to become better people in the days to come.

Waiting On The Winds

Some things seem to take forever . . . but nothing seems to take as long as the release of the next book in the A Song Of Ice And Fire series, on which the Game of Thrones TV show was based. Called The Winds Of Winter, its release date has been repeatedly delayed.

Multiple presidential elections have come and gone. The HBO series hit the pinnacle of popularity and ended. Pandemics have swept the face of the globe. And still A Song Of Ice And Fire readers wait, and wait, and wait — like the poor unfortunates who are trying to get out of Africa that the narrator describes at the beginning of Casablanca.

Author George R.R. Martin has taken progressively longer to release the next volume in the series. The first book was published in 1996 (that’s 25 years ago, but who’s counting?), the second in 1998, the third in 2000, the fourth in 2005, and the fifth in 2011. In short, fans of the series have been waiting for a full decade for the next book. We’ve been waiting so long, in fact, that I’ve written before–six years ago–about the delayed publication date, and we don’t seem to be any closer to an actual release of the book. And The Winds Of Winter isn’t even the last book in the series!

Why do fans care about this? After all, some would point out, the HBO series told us how the story ends. But the books are much richer in detail in their description of Westeros and its inhabitants and their culture, with important characters who never even made it on the TV show screen. And while I’m not as negative as some are about the ending of the HBO series, I’d like to see how the creator of this compelling world wraps up the story. Of course, I’ll have to go back and reread the prior books when The Winds Of Winter comes out, just to make sure that I am fully recalling all of the different plot threads.

So, when is the next book coming out? No one but Martin really knows, but the speculation is that it will hit the bookstores in November 2023–a mere two years away. Having waited for a decade, I guess I can endure another two years.

Or three, or four . . . .

On The Eleventh Minute Of the Eleventh Hour Of The Eleventh Day Of The Eleventh Month

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the armistice between the Allies and Germany took effect, and World War I thereby ended. Ever since, the Allied nations have remembered that day–known as Remembrance Day in France, Belgium, and the British Commonwealth nations, and first as Armistice Day, and later as Veterans Day, in the United States. By tradition, those countries observe a moment of silence on the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to commemorate the fallen and the wounded.

Why all the elevens? It’s pretty clear that the armistice wasn’t delayed in order to achieve a symmetry of numbers; both the Allies and their opponents were exhausted and depleted by years of bloody fighting and were more than ready for it to stop as soon as possible. In fact, many of the opposing powers–including the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Bulgaria–had reached armistices with the Allies before November 11; only Germany was a holdout. The armistice with the German Empire was finally reached at 5:10 a.m. on November 11 and was to take effect at 11 a.m., to allow the news and cease fire orders to be transmitted to the troops on the front line.

By then, choosing the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month as the time for the fighting to stop must have had a poetic quality that was impossible to resist. The concept of the “eleventh hour” as the very last point at which something can be done has long been a part of western civilization. It finds its roots in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, recounted in Matthew 20:1-16. Those hired early in the day agreed to work for a denarius a day and, after working for a full day, were upset when those hired later in the day–including at the eleventh hour–were paid the same amount. (For those unfamiliar with the parable, the vineyard owner holds the early workers to their agreement and says he gets to decide what to do with his money and concludes with the phrase: “For many are called, but few are chosen,” which also became a well-known phrase.)

By the time November 11, 1918 arrived, the participants in World War I probably felt that they had reached the last point at which something could be salvaged. By then, millions of soldiers and civilians had died in what was easily the bloodiest war ever fought to that point, and many of those who survived were left horribly wounded by gas attacks, lost body parts, and the traumas of trench warfare and shell shock. Dynasties were toppled, and the old ways of fighting gave way to the new, with World War I ushering in the era of tanks, and aerial warfare, and poison gas. By the time the war ended entire generations had been brutally decimated, and the desperate participants no doubt wondered why they had decided to fight the pointless war in the first place.

In short, they had reached their “eleventh hour.” It seems fitting that that is when the war effectively ended.

A Clean, Well, Quieter Place

One of my favorite short stories is A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, in which Ernest Hemingway tells the story of an old guy drinking in a cafe. A young waiter, impatient to move on with his evening, rips the old guy for hanging around rather than going home so the cafe can close up. The older waiter, made a bit more patient and understanding by years of life, respects the old guy’s need for a clean, well-lighted place where he can enjoy a drink before heading back to his presumably lonely life. It’s a great story, written in the classic, straightforward Hemingway declarative sentence style, that speaks to both the young and old among us.

I suspect that if the old guy were around these days he not only would be looking for a clean, well-lighted place, but also one that is quieter, too. So many modern restaurants seem to be intentionally designed and consciously configured to be as loud as possible, as if a raucous atmosphere will make a place seem really exciting (and, perhaps, compensate for marginal food). It’s annoying for those of us who want to have a nice conversation over our dinner, and find ourselves unable to do so because of the din. I suspect that the old guy in the Hemingway tale would be irritated by the noise, too.

So I am happy to report that the new Sycamore restaurant in German Village has dialed back the noise level to the point where you can actual talk to the people you are eating with, without shouting or asking people to repeat everything. The prior incarnation of the restaurant was so loud that was impossible, and in my view made eating there unpleasant. Last night we took a large group to the Sycamore, had a great meal–the food is uniformly terrific–and enjoyed lots of chat over our dinner. I’m hoping that is a sign that the trend toward ever louder restaurants has ended, and the proprietors are recognizing the value of some effective sound-dampening. efforts

If I want a loud venue, I’ll go to a sports bar where I can drink beer, eat chicken wings, and cheer for my team without worrying about irritating fellow diners. But if a want to good meal, give me a clean, well, quieter place.

Not Forgetful, But Efficiently Brainy

In A Study In Scarlet, Doctor Watson was astonished to learn that Sherlock Holmes did not profess to know whether the sun revolved around the earth, or the earth revolved around the sun. Holmes, unembarrassed by his unfamiliarity with basic astronomy, responded to Watson with a famous analogy:

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

I thought about Holmes’ notion when I ran across this article about the relationship of intelligence and forgetfulness. It reports on a study that concludes that forgetfulness is important to “intelligent decision-making in dynamic, noisy environments.” As one of the researchers explained, the study demonstrates that “[t]he real goal of memory is to optimize decision-making. It’s important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that’s going to help make decisions in the real world.”

Intelligent brains therefore are quick to jettison memory of irrelevant or unnecessary information–which might be things like the names of people you haven’t seen in months, the details of a conversation that happened some time ago, or whether the sun revolves around the earth–to ensure there is space for relevant information that will actually be needed in your daily decision-making. And here’s some good news for those of us who have been around for a while: the study indicates that older brains forget accumulated older information in order to make room for newer information. So those “senior moments” aren’t a sign of approaching mental feebleness, they are just your brain efficiently sifting through the pile of debris and trying to get the limited space in your mental attic in order.

So Sherlock Holmes was right, and the study confirms the ultimate accuracy of his analysis of the human brain as like an attic with limited storage space. Of course, being Holmes, he probably wouldn’t read about the study in the first place.

Memories By Maude

My maternal grandmother, Maude Neal, had a remarkable memory. Locked in her brain were hundreds, if not thousands, of poems, sayings, and song lyrics that she could summon and quote at will on any occasion. Her repertoire ranged from silly ditties she learned as a kid (“Kaiser Bill went up the hill to take a look at France. Kaiser Bill came down the hill with bullets in his pants.”) to sayings about hard work, fortitude, love, family, death, and just about any other topic.

Back in the ‘70s or early ‘80s Mom decided to sit down with Grandma, have her deliver some of her sayings, and make careful note of them. Mom then carefully typed the poems and sayings (with a few typos and strike-throughs) and assembled the pages in a handmade booklet, decorated with stick-on flowers and held together by yarn. All of us kids got a copy. We still have my copy, decades later, and keep it on a table in our upstairs study. It’s a cool piece of family memorabilia that reminds me of Grandma Neal and Mom whenever I see it.

And while I lack Grandma’s facility with remembering and quoting poems, I remember her reciting some of the poems in this little booklet. Like this one, which I first heard as a little kid when I came home and made some complaint about something trivial:

I do not ask to walk smooth paths

Or bear an easy load.

I pray for strength and fortitude

To climb the rock-strewn road.

Give me such courage and I can scale

The hardest peak alone.

And transform every stumbling block

Into a stepping stone.

Grandma’s poetic message was clear: suck it up, kid! It’s still good advice.