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.

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.

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.

Happy Valentine’s Day: Eleven Months in Isolation and Reading Your Way into Depression

You would think that eleven months in coronavirus isolation would give you time to read some of the fun things you have been putting off. Maybe some good humor, or even some poetry, although most of it seems to have been written by people in depressed states.

But, speaking of poetry, a friend gave me Mary Oliver’s Devotions for Christmas. She celebrated the beauty of the natural world. That would be uplifting if we weren’t rushing toward the total destruction of nature.

Well, that stretches it a little. We are only destroying the elements of nature that support the kind of life we humans are accustomed to. It is only a bit comforting that no matter how much we abuse it, the rock we call home will continue spinning its annual trips around our supporting star.

If we snuff out human life, evolution will kick in again and we can pick up where we left off in a few million years – if we can somehow remember where we left off.

No, it is just as well we begin anew. We will need a new Bible, of course, with revealed word that can be dug up from the past. I would suggest Mary Oliver’s book for a book in the new bible on our revived planet Earth. Devotions could well be called the Book of Psalms in the New Good Book if her poetry somehow survives. Ms. Oliver was, herself, too modest to name her collection Psalms.

Some of my other choices seem to reveal a masochistic need to deepen the suffering of living in lockdown for what has been almost a full year. One of my first choices was The Plague by Albert Camus. It gave me a pretty nice introduction to the psychology of living in the lockdown world of pestilence and death. It’s not a pretty picture. But it has a happy ending when the rats return to the streets. Normalcy.

Then, Donald Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, emptied Donald’s family laundry basket so we could all pick through all his dirty cotton boxers and sweaty undershirts. (Mary L. Trump, Ph.D, Too Much and Never Enough) In it, Ms. Trump reveals that DJT is a narcissistic sociopath. I’m not certain that I am correctly citing her professional diagnosis but it will do as confirmation of what most of us have been able to conclude by watching the evening news. If anyone thought Ms. Trump exaggerated his sorry condition, the events of January 6, 2021 confirmed that, if anything, she underreported the depth of his dysfunction and the danger he poses to those around him.

Of course it has been the daily newspapers that absorbed most of my reading time. When DJT was elected I added online subscriptions to the Washington Post and New York Times to my daily encounter with the news. No one can read all of either one of those papers every day. But it gave me a good way to ease into the day’s new developments by reading yesterday’s with horror and a cup of coffee. Although I am never able to read everything in these two papers, I manage to read a lot and I also get to feel good about supporting serious national journalism. Oh, and Jeff Bezos.

Then I made the mistake of beginning to plow through The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. I really thought it would have a calming effect by reinforcing the idea that as bad as Trump is, it could always be worse. I am still reading, just beginning actually. I have read 22 per cent of the book. (Thanks to Kindle, I can give you a precise report of my progress.)

But, already, I have been repeatedly chilled by the similarity of the track Trump is on to that of Adolf Hitler’s steady ascent to despotic power in the Thirties. Trump’s impeachment and pending legal actions by state and federal prosecuting authorities provide no exception. After all, Hitler spent nine months in jail after his Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, He used the time to write Mein Kampf, ghosted by his prison companion and lifetime follower-to-be, Rudolf Hess. If Trump should be jailed on tax evasion, he would no doubt compose his own manifesto with the help of some more literate inmate with ten-finger typing skills.

They say that as a discussion grows longer on the internet, the more likely that someone will throw out a Hitler analogy or some other Nazi comparison. (See “Godwin’s Law“.) And, there, the discussion generally ends. There is nowhere else to go as the discussion has degenerated into absurdity.

But don’t be too quick too quick to dismiss this one. Reading about the rise of Hitler after WWI, the similarities are downright uncanny. One begins to wonder if Trump has read the Shirer book. That’s not likely since he is a notorious aliterate. Nor has he likely read Mein Kampf, although his ex-wife Ivana claimed he kept a copy of Hitler’s speeches on his night shelf. Godwin’s Law would say that’s enough already. Out of bounds. End of discussion.

But, take a look, friends. The Big Lie. Check. The doubling down on claims shown clearly to be false. Check. The cultivated cravenness of partisans. Check. The promotion of violence among supporters. Check.

But to be fair Trump is missing a few important characteristics.

  • He seems not to like the sight of blood. He is happy for others to bathe in it but he doesn’t seem likely to be putting contracts out on people’s lives. As mob bosses go, he seems like a pretty lily-livered one. But he would undoubtedly develop the skills with time, need, and toothless legal and legislative oversight.
  • He is cagey smart and plenty manipulative but he lacks strategic thinking skills. He has people for that but neither are they exactly world class. (Think Stephen Miller, Roger Stone, Steve Bannon.)
  • He espouses no particular ideology of relevance for American voters beyond a nihilistic attitude toward science, government, American culture and rule of law. There is, of course, a unifying principle of opposition to anything vaguely inclusive of people of color, any color but pink-orangey-white. His son-in-law and daughter are Jewish so he differs with Hitler there, but only because they are snow-white and Jared is from a proper criminal family and had, from Donald’s perspective, the good sense to marry gentile.
  • Nor does he have Hitler’s oratory skills. He does standup comedy for the amoral semi-literate, racist groups but he doesn’t have the ability to excite millions of Americans with exciting crescendos of inspirational illiberalism. He can barely read aloud from a TelePrompter. Although sometimes I suspect he reads as he does to communicate to his followers that he doesn’t really mean what he is saying; he is required to say some things to stay barely inside the bounds of decency so that they may all survive another day as a movement.

So, where does that leave us? All I would say is that comparing Trump and Hitler does not extend to my good Lake Jackson Republican friends. They have simply had no choice (so they thought) but to follow along with the nominee of the party they have belonged to for years.

I would suggest to them that they take a look at our party system and the ease with which an extremist or demagogue can take over a party through our system of primaries, gerrymandering and campaign financing. So long as things move along as usual with ho-hum races between ho-hum candidates, there will continue to be folks sent off to legislative bodies to do their bidding and vote against taxes and regulation, except for being “pro-life” when it comes to regulating women and pro-death when it comes to reading the Second and Eighth Amendments. I think most of my long time Republican friends in Lake Jackson are repelled by Trump. The ones who continue to worship him after the Capitol riot are either folks who never participated much in politics or they were conservative Democrats of the early Strom Thurmond, Huey Long, Lester Maddox variety.

But keep and eye on DJT. I think he will keep holding rallies and egging on his followers. If he climbs back into office in 2024, America is in grave danger. You may say that his age is on our side but there are more youthful pretenders out there: Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley, and Ted Cruz to name a few. Graham and Cruz are prime examples of the power of power to turn old opponents into remorseless lackeys.

So ignore my reading list if you are looking for uplifting ways to pass your days in coronavirus solitude. Get a copy of Love Story from an old paperback bookstore in the neighborhood and have a happy Valentine’s Day.

Thanksgiving Thought: A Poem by Sheenagh Pugh

 
 
 
 Sometimes
 by Sheenagh Pugh
  
 Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
 from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
 faces down frost, green thrives, the crops don’t fail,
 sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
  
 A people sometimes will step back from war;
 elect an honest man; decide they care 
 enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
 Some men become what they were born for.
  
 Sometimes our best efforts do not go
 amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
 The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
 that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.