My Lockdown Binge: Downton Abbey.

While others may have felt cut off from the rest of the world during the lockdown year, I was using it to catch up the things other Americans were doing in the 2010s. Back then, some of the Americans I know best were studying the lifestyle of early 20th Century British peerage as revealed in Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey.

Having lately been of a mind to ask the Brits come run things again, I thought maybe I should catch up. I have dropped that notion since the successful election of a candidate faithful to democracy and rule of law. Still, we may yet have a need if the skewing of the census has the intended result.

So, I binge-watched Downton Abbey. I had avoided it even as the rest of my family in three different states bathed in it every week for six years. It seemed too much like soap opera. Will Edith attempt to attract another of Lady Mary’s suitors in their lifelong drama of sibling rivalry? Will Cousin Violet succeed in imposing her will on “those other Crawleys” and find a way to keep the fortune under His Lordship’s control? That sort of thing.

Even as members of my family urged it on me, I had resisted until the most wise Amazon Prime algorithm informed me that I should watch it. I have learned to trust the Algorithm. It knows what I buy, what I browse, what I watch and listen to and read. (Thankfully I don’t have one of those speakers that report private conversations to Mr. Bezos.) With all that information to crank through the Algorithm, I felt that Amazon must know, better than I know myself, that Downton Abbey was right for me and I was right for Downton Abbey.

So I spent a few weeks watching one or two episodes a night until, about four or five episodes in, I caught myself talking to the characters on the screen, advising them what to do or, more often, what not to do. To the gentlemen — be careful around Lady Edith. Or to anyone — watch out when Lady Cora dip-tilts her head forward and to the side a notch and peers at you through her eyebrows. And since that is the way way Lady Cora looked at everyone all the time for all six years of the series, I suppose the message was to always be careful around her. She can drag a secret out of anyone and she can’t keep one longer than one episode.

On the subject of secrets, the entire household — from lord to footman — seemed to fuel their lives around secrets. They simply couldn’t be level with one another. It made for a dysfunctional family upstairs and a toxic workplace downstairs, but they all loved their king. There you have all the makings of a good soap opera and a stable society where people can live together in peace and happy servitude.

After watching the assault on the Capitol by Trump’s brown shirts, the soap opera life of the Earl’s household seems an attractive alternative to rule by the Bad Boys. Maybe the Queen would have us back as members in good standing of the empire. At any place in the social strata, peer to pig farmer, life would surely be better than under rule of the American insurrectionists.

And maybe this is the simple wisdom revealed in Downton Abbey: pig farmers and peers had something in common that bonded them into happy little towns that made British society work. Wrestling sows in the mud was a livelihood for one and, for the other, a duty involved in preserving the ancestral line and estate.

Well, I’m being unkind to Lady Mary. Strike that last sentence.

Rage and Rampage: Is It Really About Mental Health?

Friday night, Brazosport Center Stages opened its production of “An Iliad,” a play by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. The play is an examination of the hold of rage over humankind and its expression throughout history as lust for war and blood. The opening night performance was provided with eerily apt real-life bookends by mass murderers in Atlanta and Boulder, one three days before our play opened and the next three days after.

Not the same, you say. One person with an automatic weapon is not the same as a war that pits populations against one another with all the force of their intelligence, technology, industry and wealth. I grant you that, in its scale, it is not the same. But the fundamental driving power of rage is the same.

In the case of the single shooter with the automatic weapon, he feels empowered to do what only armies could do in the past. And his weapon is the product of his society’s technology and wealth. (I considered the pronoun and I’m sorry to say for mass killings the masculine seldom fails.)

The New York Times offers a study that shows an undeniable connection between the availability of guns and mass killing. And the phenomenon is global. Societies with more guns produce more mass shootings.

After mass killings there is inevitably discussion of mental health as a possible factor. Of course, sick people sometimes do evil things. But it is our collective mental health that seems to be the problem. If there can be such a thing as societal or national mental health, perhaps the mental health argument makes sense.

In that case, we might say that a nation is insane when it produces large quantities of weapons of war and makes them easily available and, in fact, guarantees them as a right. Will the Second Amendment be read by our now right-wing court to guarantee the right to own and drive around in a military tank?  

Imagine if the nut groups that invaded the Capitol on January 6 had crowd funded the purchase of a few tanks? How better to express one’s rage than with a few old German battle tanks? That, of course, would require a more expansive reading of the constitution but our court as it now stands seems up to the job.

Meanwhile, we go about our days. I have grandchildren who live less than a mile from the King Soopers store where ten people died this Monday (March 22). It has been their family’s regular shopping spot for ten years.

Now their parents have the job of trying to explain what has happened, to make them feel safe, to inspire in them the courage to live their lives, and to help them understand what must be done to reclaim their country as a desirable place to live and raise their children someday. I do not envy them the task.

Brazosport Center Stages: “An Iliad” opens March 19 in The Glen at Brazosport College

Monday night I watched the invited dress rehearsal of An Iliad, a solo play about war and the toxin of rage which lives so near the surface in humanity. If you are like me, your exposure to the classics of Greek literature is very limited. This is a re-telling of Homer’s great epic poem about the Trojan War. The play’s authors, Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, have done a nice job of putting the action into modern language and making it relevant to the warring world we have lived in, yes, ever since the Trojan War.

As a solo performer script, it requires an outstanding actor. Monday night I was able to see Wes Copeland in the role of The Poet. Brazosport Center Stages presents the play with three such outstanding actors taking turns in the role of The Poet. (When you go to buy your tickets, you can choose your own Poet, either Wes Copeland, Bobby Britton, Jr. or Jeremy Todd. I have seen all of them perform in BCS productions and they are all excellent.

Here are a couple of shots I took at the dress rehearsal of Mr. Copeland performing.

Wes Copeland rehearsing a dramatic re-telling of The Iliad. He performs the role opening night, Friday, March 19.

This is no dry recitation of the epic poem you tried to dodge reading in college. The driving theme here is that humankind never learns the great cost and sorrow of war. At one point in this telling, The Poet runs through a list of all the wars since the Trojan War, all with the same burden of tragedy and and senseless loss. In the script, the list runs four full pages. A friend said, “I kept thinking he would get to the wars of our time. But he just kept citing more wars.” That in itself gives the audience a staggering moment of realization of the persistence of rage and violence in the human heart.

These three fine actors, Copeland, Britton and Todd, learned 56 pages of difficult and emotional script including a few lines in Greek as The Poet goes back to his roots. That in itself is quite a challenge, but what they do with it is one of those little miracles that happens in live theater – you learn a little more about who you are, what humanity is, and how we manage to live together – or not.

The actors are accompanied on stage by a muse, a solo guitarist, who has no lines but who does share a haunting accompaniment with the audience and a drink with The Poet. I would give you the Muse’s name if I knew it. Maybe I will learn it and update this piece when I get my own copy of the program on opening night. (His name is Jonathan Peachey. See Connie’s comment below.)

Get your tickets now. Six performances, weather permitting, outdoors in The Glen at Brazosport College. Masks, social distancing, and outdoor venue make theater possible in the Age of Pandemic. Please come prepared to comply with the simple rules meant to get us to The Other Side.

A Big Ol’ Howdy from Neanderthalia

West Neanderthalia to be exact.

Photo caricature of Gov. Greg Abbott by DonkeyHotey from Flickr

They said we all died out when the climate changed 40,000 years ago. But the truth is (alternative fact here), we settled in the American south.

Over in East Neanderthalia they do more catfish noodlin’ to get by. Here in West Neanderthalia, we eat the cows, listen to country music, and drink our beer regular. None of that crafty ale stuff. And somethin’ we learned a long time ago — never trust anybody wearin’ a mask. They’ll steal your cows.

Government was late comin’ to Neanderthalia and we can’t wait to be rid of it. Durn nuisance.

As long as we have it, though, we keep it under control and make sure we don’t have to do anything we don’t want to. Like wash your hands, wear masks and dodge around tryin’ to keep from changin’ the climate.

Hell, we made through that bad spell 40,000 years ago, we can beat this one, too. We’re survivalists. We just stock in the Goya beans and keep on votin’ for Republicans. Weather gets too bad, we’ll just move back into a cave somewhere. Sleepin’ in a cave won’t be no problem. Got me one a them My Pillows.

Speakin’ of caves, there’s a big ‘un over in New Mexico. But we have to wait. They have bad government over there. Been votin’ for Democrats. We’ll just stay here and keep on racin’ with East Neanderthalia to see who gets to the bottom first.

Gotta go. Heard they’re inauguratin’ our guy today for his second term. Gonna stop that steal this time. Can’t make it to DC but it’ll be on cable news.

Let’s Learn Spanish: Advice for Duolingo Language Students

Varios de mis amigos estudian español con Duolingo. Nuestro maestro es Duo, el buho. Duo es muy listo, él sabe muchos idiomas. Pero, yo siempre he querido aprender español porque vivo cerca de la frontera con Mexico y tengo unos amigos que hablan español solamente.

Duolingo es un buen método para enseñar un idioma. Duo usa técnicas motivacionales como esos usado en los videojuegos. Pueden convertirse adictivo. Ten cuidado.

Of course, I am trying to show off for you and I confess to having a Spanish-English dictionary at hand. My vocabulary, usage and grammar are undoubtedly not quite up to Duo’s standards but I think they would get my ideas across to a good many Spanish speakers.

My real purpose is to offer advice to anyone using Duolingo to learn a language. It is simply this: beware of the video game motivations. In my case, I became so obsessive-compulsive about running up points and competing to attain goals and push ahead of other users that I was sacrificing the kind of learning that occurs when you stop to examine and think about the last item posted, to listen carefully to pronunciations, to look at the way sentences have been constructed, and, dozens of other details that you miss by hurrying on to the next item as soon as you hit enter.

I had attained a status in Duolingo called the Diamond League. It was difficult to get there and I maintained it for a sizable number of weeks. I watched the scores in “the league” as they mounted every day and I made sure I generated enough points to put a safe distance between myself and the others in the league. I found “cheap” points to score quickly and easily.

One week I set out to see if I could nail a number one finish for the week in Diamond League. I did it. That was the week that I discovered I had reduced Duo’s great teaching tool to a lousy video game, and a pretty lame one at that. From then on I was determined only to avoid “demotion” by keeping out of the bottom 10 per cent of the class. That wasn’t so difficult. But it still distracted from my learning.

So, today I changed my strategy. I am spending more time with each item. I have a set goal of points (XP) that I want to achieve every day and I am determined to stay with that number and not go beyond it. I found that I spend as much time studying as I did with my more compulsive approach but it is much more satisfying and I felt I learned much more.

Design your own approach. Establish your own XP goal for each day. Do it every day. Daily practice is important. I have a five year streak going and plan to keep it up until I can have a decent conversation with a native speaker in Texas’ first European language.

UPDATE: After the first day using my new approach, I was awakened by my cell phone with the following ominous message: You fell to #28! Be careful! You’re going to drop back to the Obsidian League. I will post another update at the end of the week to let you know what life is like in the minor leagues.