Friday, July 17, 2009

Regression Therapy -- Free!

Well, now that the secret's out, I suppose there's no point in hiding it any longer: Governor's Island is freaking awesome. Last Friday a friend and I cycled merrily all the day long, and a funny thing happened. As we rode past the trees and water with nary a care in the world -- no cars! no helmets! -- we found ourselves regressing farther and farther back into a childlike state. The conversation stopped being about the economy and our search for work (there's a reason we're riding bikes at 10 am on a Friday) and started being about... how neat-looking the houses were, how much we totally wanted to see the zombie movie playing in the abandoned theatre (but couldn't stop cycling yet! just once more around!), how the island was shaped like an ice cream cone, and how truly we both loved hammocks.

There was little to buy on the island, nowhere really to spend or make money, no fear that anyone would steal our island-issued bikes, and (best of all) free mini golf. The sun warmed us, the breeze cooled us. We were four years old, we were ten years old. Our minds were empty yet present, like a happy Buddhist. By the end of the day we would require seven minutes to choose an ice cream flavor. There's something about that place, I tell you.

Perhaps it was the soothing motion of circling the island repeatedly, or maybe the sound of the waves. Maybe it was the distance from the city. I think the lack of anywhere to spend money was a big factor, and the feeling of safety, that nothing bad could possibly happen here. It was like being a child or being in... Canada. I felt protected, as though by a big benevolent government that would take care of all my basic needs, like some sort of cosmic mommy was watching out for us. I hope the island never changes. I could stand a little more mystical infantile regression, because being ten? It's amazing.

P.S. City of Water Day is tomorrow...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Goodbye Student Loan Payments!

Congratulations! You no longer need to go to film school, now that The Dancing Image has curated the world's most comprehensive syllabus of film-related reading! My suggestions are on there, so you know it's good.

Now you can go study something important instead, like science. Your parents will be so relieved.

Monday, July 06, 2009

A truly insightful reading of "By the Shores of Silver Lake," wherein I see sex everywhere

So apparently some readers thought my last post was "too long." Ha! I say. Ha! Little do you know that was only the first part! I chopped it in half for you and it was still too long! What would Pa say? Something folksy and wise about not quitting before a job is done, I imagine. So read on, if you will, because we're not nearly done yet.

Moving on....

Book Four! On The Banks of Plum Creek! As a child, all I thought was, "Neat, they live in a sod house! Just like a hobbit hole!" Now all I see is an opening sequence riddled with regret and dark foreshadowing as the family rolls their covered wagon into Minnesota. When Pa trades the mustangs, Pet and Patty, for two stout oxen, he tells Laura, "Pet and Patty like to travel. They are little Indian ponies, Laura, and plowing is too hard work for them. They will be much happier, traveling out west. You wouldn't want to keep them here, breaking their hearts on a plow." Of course anyone but a dunderhead could see those two little ponies are Pa and Laura.

Not only does the series get darker at this point, but the writing becomes more self-consciously literary, like Laura's warming up with practice (she really loves foreshadowing, and perfects it in The Long Winter). Incidentally, the first two books were rather fictional -- recollections mixed with historical research, muddled dates -- whereas from this point on it becomes more accurate, with fixed dates that line up with actual events.

From page one, Plum Creek stews in an atmosphere of sadness and dread. There are some amusing episodes, like fixing up the dugout house and swimming in the swimming hole and sliding down haystacks, but for the most part we're just bombarded with Pa's sense of regret at no longer living out west, Ma's dissatisfaction at living in the dugout, and the great deferred reward of the first wheat crop which we all know will never come as soon as we read this passage:

"I never saw weather like this. The old-timers call it grasshopper weather." "Whatever do they mean by that?" Ma asked him. Pa shook his head. "You can't prove it by me. 'Grasshopper weather' was what Nelson said. I couldn't make out what he meant by it." "Likely it's some old Norwegian saying," Ma said.

As if we weren't 100% sure disaster was coming, Pa builds a magnificent house for Ma, all with lumber he got on credit. Credit! He'll pay it back after the first wheat crop comes in. Everything will be all right after that first wheat crop comes in. Oh, Pa.

More in the continuing man-versus-nature metaphor series: When Laura is compelled to go into the rising creek during a flood -- she simply has to feel that strong, rushing water around her -- and nearly drowns, she develops a newfound appreciation for almighty, terrible nature:
"Laura knew now that there were things stronger than anybody. But the creek had not got her. It had not made her scream and it could not make her cry."

Life goes on by the Banks of Plum Creek. School. Nellie Oleson. Church. And then, two summers in a row, terrible plagues of grasshoppers. Grasshoppers everywhere, destroying everything. And drought, terrible drought. Laura couldn't get the creepy feeling off her skin. Pa had to walk 300 miles east in his old, patched boots and work on a farm for a dollar a day to feed the family. The girls are alone without him for weeks at a time. Devastating stuff. And I complained when I found one little old cockroach in my bed.

The book ends with Pa spending four days in a snowbank during a terrible blizzard and coming home just in time to spend Christmas with his family. He had gone to town to get Christmas candy and oyster crackers but had to eat them all to stay alive during the blizzard. (Ironically, the snow-bank shelter was mere feet from the house! Oh, Pa!) But none of it matters, because Pa comes back and the family is together again.

But, characteristically, the sweet ending is merely a brief reprieve from more devastation. The first two chapters of By the Shores of Silver Lake reduced me to tears on the subway: Mary's gone blind from scarlet fever, and Jack the Bulldog dies. The family moves west to South Dakota, settling in a railroad camp, where Ma gets more uptight than ever. And who can blame her, with teams of rough men using rough language around her curious, pubescent daughter. More than once she and Pa warn Laura away from those rough men, and when they take in boarders, Ma gives Laura a sliver of wood to wedge beneath her bedroom door.

Silver Lake is all about Laura hitting puberty, from specific pronouncements of "being grown up now" (after Jack dies) to the horror she feels when she discovers a girl her age had been married, to this slightly mysterious passage wherein Laura is compelled to follow a path of moonlight late at night, and runs straight into a wolves' den:

"I had no idea you would go so far," Pa said. "We followed the moonpath, Laura told him. Pa looked at her strangely. "You would," he said. "Poor girl. You're as nervous as a witch and no wonder," Ma said softly.

Whoa, what's going on here? Is this just more of Laura's irrepressible spirit? Or is it something else that leads Ma and Pa to whisper earnestly once she's out of earshot? Is their wild daughter bursting at the seams with unbidden adolescent yearnings? Did she get her first period? Something is happening. The book is riddled with allusions to Laura's burgeoning maturity and sexuality, and it's no coincidence that it is here we finally see her life intersect with future husband Almanzo Wilder's (she first sees his strong, handsome team of horses and admires them, before she learns whom they belong to... wait, doesn't Freud have a thing about horses? Is that why there's a chapter about her wild older cousin teaching her to ride a horse? Oh my gosh! I never realized the Little House books were so sexually charged!).

Besides dealing with Laura's transition to adolescence/adulthood, the book is also unique for introducing, for the first time in the series, an impressionistic interior monologue. When baby Grace goes missing under Laura's watch and she's terrified that the child might have wandered into a slough, we get the following:
"Oh, Grace why didn't I watch you," she thought. "Sweet, pretty little helpless sister... Grace must have gone this way. Maybe she chased a butterfly. She didn't go into the Big Slough. She didn't climb the hill, she wasn't there. Oh, baby sister, I couldn't see you anywhere east or south on this hateful prairie."

This is the only instance I can find of first-person narration anywhere so far in the series.

Laura will be up to her old literary tricks again in The Long Winter, foreshadowing like crazy. I have to stop here for tonight, and probably won't re-read the book (having devoured it this winter, along with my weight in cheese curds) but if you just can't get enough Ingalls-ania, you might do worse than check out Lizzie Skurnick's compelling reading of it here.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

I'm too fragile for this

I recently decided to re-read the Little House on the Prairie series in its entirety. I can't say why. Perhaps its because the books are so vivid in my memory, with that sensuous and tactile prose... for whatever reason, I gave into the urge, and they're much darker than I remember them being (except for the Long Winter, which is exactly as dark as I remember it being, though much more complex).

I started with the innocuous Farmer Boy, a plodding, dullish read enlivened mainly by mouth-watering descriptions of what Almanzo Wilder ate. Almanzo, of course, is Laura's future husband, who won't come into the series again until book five, and Farmer Boy is a one-off about his life as a child.

The Wilders are upright, upstanding citizens who live on a prosperous farm in upstate New York. In Farmer Boy, children seem to work from sunup to sundown, not pausing to rest til Sunday. The long stretches of manual labor are broken only by immense quantities of the aforementioned food, served up hot and fresh daily by mother, who seems never to stop cooking. The children only play when their parents leave on a ten-day vacation, during which time they promptly eat up almost all the sugar. A staid little book, but nonetheless a romantic notion (imagining your husband's childhood is very sweet, isn't it?). Also, it sets the stage for their later meeting, showing Almanzo and Laura to be equally obsessed with horses. It's a meeting of the minds, see?

The Ingalls family, by comparison, is a riot. In Little House in the Big Woods, the girls actually play and Ma even helps them cut out paper dolls! I couldn't believe it -- imagine, playing! The Wilders never had that kind of leisure time. And at night, Pa would even play with them! He'd play Mad Dog, cornering them by the woodstove, his hair all on end. And then he would play the fiddle, something the bloodless Mr. Wilder would never do.

And the leniency, by jinks! Pa forgives Laura for being naughty on Sunday and even forgives her for slapping Mary! In the tenderest of scenes, he comforts the child, distracted by jealousy over Mary's golden curls: when the little brunette asks him which he prefers, brown hair or golden, he replies, "Well, Laura, my hair is brown."

Lizzie Skurnick 's somewhat breathless account of this scene, and of the whole book, really, hits all its highest points: pig slaughter, sugaring off dances, and Pa's mysterious yet undeniable attractiveness. Another point I'd like to bring up here is the faintly zen quality to the book's last paragraph:

She thought to herself, this is now. She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

Pa, you see, is singing Auld Land Syne, and four-year-old Laura is coming to terms with the very concept of time itself. How can it pass and be forgotten, when she is there, ever present in the moment, and writing it all down just for us?

So, moving from Farmer Boy to Little House, it seemed to me that the Wilders were about as much fun as a Pilgrim crossed with an Amish and Ma and Pa, by contrast, come off like a bunch of frivolous hippies. At least, in the beginning they do.

But then things get serious.

Life takes an interesting turn when the Ingallses trade their cosy, merry ways for the wild life on the road and in Indian Territory. Little House on the Prairie is by far the most adventurous and incredible of the books, the wildest and least domestic, even though a large portion of the narrative is devoted to the building of the house.

The book begins with a tinge of sadness, something I notice becomes more pronounced as the series goes on (subsequent books open with sadness, or foreboding, or both). It starts with them leaving the little house in the big woods: "They left it lonely and empty ... and they never saw that little house again."

They make a late winter crossing of the Mississippi and the very next night they hear the ice cracking: they crossed in the nick of time. It's the first of many scrapes and near-death experiences. The creek rises in the middle of a crossing and Pa must get out and swim with the horses while Ma takes the reins; they nearly lose Jack the Bulldog; Ma's foot is almost crushed during the building of the house; rings of wolves surround the house and howl at night; later, tribes of Indians on the warpath howl for days and only the intervention of a friendly Indian saves all the settlers from getting scalped; Pa and Mr. Scott are almost killed building the well; a prairie fire ravages the earth; and the whole family nearly dies of malaria. Finally, finally, through all of this, the family prevails, and begins to plant a garden in the first days of spring. Not long after the first green shoots appear, soldiers comes from out East to inform Pa that he's built his house three miles too far over the line into Indian Territory and the whole family must get out and move.

I'll give you a moment to let the devastation kick in.*

The house. The well. The cow. The barn. They must leave it all behind -- a year of hard work and sacrifice and waiting -- and go. Just when they're finally getting settled. It never occurred to me as a child to be utterly devastated by this, but now as an adult I read it and feel sick. "A whole year's gone," says Ma. But Pa cannot be defeated: "We've got all the time in the world, Caroline."

Of course, the series is nothing if not a tribute to Pa's indomitable spirit. He and Laura are kindred spirits, perfectly matched, both of whom long to run wild all over the west (if Caroline had let him, I'm sure Pa would've gone out to Oregon eventually). Their mutual love of wild country finds its outlet in a passage here wherein Laura's emotional reaction to the papoose is strong and mysterious and visceral:

Laura looked straight into the bright eyes of the little baby nearer her. Only its small head showed above the basket's rim. Its hair was as black as a crow and its eyes were as black as a night when no stars shine. Those black eyes looked deep into Laura's eyes and she looked deep down into the blackness of that little baby's eyes, and she wanted that one little baby.

Laura screams and cries for the baby, much to Ma's astonishment: "Why on earth do you want an Indian baby, of all things?"

"Its eyes are so black," Laura sobbed. She could not say what she meant.

I defy you to read that and not know exactly what she meant.

The family hauls picket pike and leaves, heading out once again and making camp on the prairie. Laura turns into Hemingway all of a sudden, describing the "good supper" ("They ate the good supper hot from the fire. Pet and Patty munched the good grass."). From time to time Laura's descriptive prose will be enlivened by pretty lyricism, like this passage about the singing stars:

Softly Pa's fiddle sang in the starlight. Sometimes he sang a little and sometimes the fiddle sang alone. Sweet and thin and far away, the fiddle went on singing. 'None knew thee but to love thee, the dear one of my heart.' The large, bright stars hung down from the sky. Lower and lower they came, quivering with the music. Laura gasped and Ma came quickly. "What is it, Laura?" she asked, and Laura whispered, "The stars were singing..."

That night was full of music, and Laura was sure that part of it came from the great, bright stars swinging so low above the prairie.

Pa and Laura share an appreciation of these beautiful things, a sense of the poetry of their hard life on the prairie, a love of motion and open space. When the family moves out of Indian Territory, they are chastened, and quiet, and yet Laura, "Felt all excited inside. You never know what will happen next, nor where you'll be tomorrow, when you are traveling in a covered wagon."

If only the rest of their tale lived up to the promise of adventure. But the next book, I'm afraid, will be very sad indeed.

To be continued.... (You can read the second half of this post here!)

* Apparently Laura played fast and loose with the facts here, and it may not have happened exactly that way... in fact, it probably didn't. There's also a good chance the family was living on that land illegally. There's an interesting article on the Osage point of view here.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

New York in the Movies

The original Penn Station, circa 1910.

The demolition of Penn Station is one of the great blots on New York's architectural history. Designed by the prestige firm McKim, Mead and White and completed in 1910, it was demolished a mere fifty-three years later when the prevalence of the automobile led to a decrease in train use and revenue. It was a much protested, and tragic affair, especially considering the great trouble it took to build in the first place. The Bowery Boys have a great podcast on this feat of design and engineering.

I'm kind of obsessed with the old Penn Station, the quintessential symbol of cultural loss through short-sighted urban planning, so I was struck when I saw Farley Granger running down those grandiose steps in Strangers on a Train. I love it when my obsessions intersect.

Look for it at the 7:05-minute mark.

There's a neat little website that lists Penn Station's celluloid cameos, should you want to run out and hunt them down immediately. Be forewarned though, you'll be saddened when you do.

Also be forewarned that someone actually wrote this on Imdb: "When Guy jumps in the cab after the tennis match he tells the driver "Penn Station", when clearly he arrives at Grand Central Station." Yes, clearly. Be careful what you read, for the truth can only be found on Spinster Aunt.