Author: lauraleeauthor

I'm the author of the novel Angel and a dozen other books on topics ranging from Elvis Impersonation to the science behind annoying things. The San Francisco Chronicle said, "Lee's dry, humorous tone makes her a charming companion… She has a penchant for wordplay that is irresistible."

Yucky Framing: The Majesty of Nature as a Market Variable

Grand-Canyon-National-Park-5

In his book “The Measure of a Mountain” Bruce Barcott wrote, “We know people by their stories: their history, their habits, their secrets, their triumphs and failures. We know them by what they do. We want to know mountains, too, but they’ve got no story. So we do the next best thing. We throw ourselves onto them and make the stories happen.”

What stories to we throw onto the mountain? What do we learn when we sit in their presence? Even if we have never heard the centuries of folk tales that they have inspired, when in the presence of a truly awesome display of nature, we can feel that they are there. In the presence of a mountain, we are made small, and that perspective touches the soul and forces us to think about the enormity of time. (The theme of what draws a person to the mountain was the inspiration of my first novel Angel.)

There is, of course, another way to talk about nature’s majesty. In market terms. I encountered this financial justification for the continued existence of national parks on The National Parks Traveler.

According to retired University of Montana economist Thomas Power, many people, when thinking about lands conservation, suffer from a kind of “rear-view mirror” effect. We look at what industries drove our economies in the past, but are often unaware of what is currently driving our economies, much less what may be important in the future. “Not only are there economic opportunities that come with protected lands, including the obvious tourism-related business enterprises, but land protection has other, less-direct economic benefits,” Power has written. “Wilderness and park designation creates quality-of-life attributes that attracts residents whose incomes do not depend on local employment in activities extracting commercial materials from the natural landscape but choose to move to an area to enjoy its amenity values.”

Blech! That is a market-speak way of saying “it matters because it is beautiful.”

“Religious Liberty”

For some reason, I don’t know why, I am on the e-mail list for the National Organization for Marriage, the organization that opposes same-sex marriage. I know I did not sign up, and I can only assume someone else signed me up to influence my opinion?

In any case, today I decided to click through and take a look at a petition they are circulating asking their members to contact Jeff Sessions and encourage him “to protect the religious liberty rights of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints on marriage, life, gender and similar issues.”

Now, the phrase “religious liberty rights” on its face would seem to mean the right of people to practice their religion without the government taking sides. So you can worship God as a literal judge who sits in the heavens, while I am free to “affirm and promote the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.” You can practice religion by wearing a specific costume and doing a particular dance, and I can practice by reciting tales of my ancestors or praying five times a day.

But what this petition is requesting is not liberty in this sense, rather it is asking for the government to take sides and protect a specific set of religious beliefs and practices– they don’t want to protect everyone’s liberty, just the liberty “of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints…” (If you would like to read my views on this notion of “tradition,” incidentally, do a search on that word, and you’ll find a number of old posts.)

This wording aside, an argument could be made that those who created the petition are not asking for their religion to be given preference over others. Fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally are a minority religion, after all, in spite of their loud voices. Christians in general make up almost 80% of our population, but most are not Fundamentalists. As I have mentioned here before, a poll done by a Christian organization showed that only 30% of self-identified Christians approach the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God. So the case can be made that a religious minority is asking to be excused from certain aspects of civil society, as a pacifist Quaker might ask to be excused from participating in war. They will not impose their faith on others if we agree not to impose our values on them.

This point of view, however, is undercut by some of the comments posted on the petition’s page. The very first commenter expresses his or her concern that “My fear is that an Executive Order would also likely have to provide ‘religious protections’ to other religious groups…” This person was especially worried about the “Big Love” scenario, in which fundamentalist Mormons and Muslims would push for plural marriage.  (Plural marriage is, as it happens, quite well represented in the Bible.)

The result of the nightmare scenario of giving other religious groups the same freedom to opt out of mainstream law and practice is clear to the poster.  Plural marriage would be accepted and “the Muslims will be breeding like rats on the public dole until they gain enough numbers to subvert the US into an Islamic Republic under Shariah!” (They’re going to have to get busy, as Muslims currently make up .8 percent of the U.S. population.)

This should make it clear enough that the petition is not really about “liberty.” A second poster agreed that what we really need to do is to “start asserting our right to keep all people who do not want to assimilate to our way of life out of this country.”

Using the language of individualism and choice, these posters are asking to have their traditions, and only their traditions, enforced. They don’t want to just be left alone to practice their minority religion in peace, they want those of us who are not practitioners to assimilate or get out. They are asking for the right to define the “real America” as people like them.

 

 

 

The Best of Friends to Oscar Wilde

robert-baldwin-ross-4Robert Baldwin Ross was a man of wide artistic interests, and an even wider circle of friends. Someday someone will write a fantastic book that uses him as a central focus to highlight the greatest characters of the late 19th and early 20th Century. He was an art critic, a promoter of literary and artistic talents and a writer. He is, however, remembered for one thing above all else–he was Oscar Wilde’s friend and literary executor.

This last identity, it appears, came with a certain ambivalence. I just discovered a poem Ross wrote as the dedication to a copy of his Masques and Phases which he gave to the critic and book collector Clement King Shorter, who used the initials “C.K.S.” when he wrote in The Sphere.

To “C.K.S.”

Of things I do not know the names,

For words I’m at a loss.

You know I am not Henry James,

I cannot write like Edmund Gosse,

No Granville Barker’s buskin mine

To tread upon the corns of law;

It is not mine with Max to shine,

I cannot dazzle Bernard Shaw.

Not mine Corelli’s glowing page

Nor yet the periods of Hall Caine,

Not mine a William Watson’s rage,

I am not Lucas come again,

Only for me the cap and bells,

The motley of a jester’s stock:

Alas I am not H.G. Wells,

I am not even H. Belloc.

Oh call me childish or inept,

Untaught, untrained, untiled.

Oh call me anything except

“The best of friends to Oscar Wilde.”

Love and Bravery

“The average woman is far braver than the average man. The common kind of courage-that of the soldier who disregards the danger of death-belongs to the majority of men in the last resort. I mean that if it has to be exercised they exercise it without making a fuss about it. But when you come to moral courage it hardly exists at all among men. There is only one man in ten thousand who will brave the full violence of public opinion. Women, on the other hand, will often do it, if they are in love or to defend their children… The bravest men are those who have a good deal of woman about them.”Lord Alfred Douglas

My great-grandmother was known in family circles as “St. Clara.” She was canonized in family lore for a long life married to a difficult husband. He was a frustrated actor, whose (childless) sister had become a vaudeville star, while he worked as an advertising salesman who got people to buy him drinks for recitations he performed in bars. The whispers are that he was alcoholic, he had a violent temper and he ended his life in the Eloise mental hospital. He did, however, possess a charm and charisma that even his children, who all seem to have had difficult relationships with him, admired. My grandmother, a radio actress, memorized some of his recitations and recorded them in order to preserve them.

One of the things that interests me in the story of Oscar Wilde and his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas is the very different way people often talk about a romantic relationship between two men and a relationship between a man and a woman.  I’ve written a number of articles on the subject here.

One of my most popular posts here is the article I wrote on Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol and its refrain “Each man kills the thing he loves.” The article talked about the effect of Wilde’s incarceration on some of the people in his life, including his wife Constance. I was somewhat surprised to find one day among the comments a post from someone who was mildly critical of Oscar’s wife for not standing by him. In fact, Constance was more loyal to Oscar than I think anyone could have the right to expect. After all, he was a serial adulterer with male prostitutes and others, and his actions tore the family apart, sent him to jail, and caused the family to lose all of their possessions. When he was released from jail she continued to support him financially, and was considering reuniting with him. He was of the opinion that she should continue to give him an allowance so he could live with his young lover Lord Alfred Douglas. This is what put an end to any talk of reunion. She did, however, continue to take an interest in his work and to support him financially until she died.

The idea that anyone could fault Constance Wilde for not supporting her husband enough points to a great difference in our expectations of women and men in relationships. Lord Alfred Douglas believed that women had more courage than men because wives and mothers routinely stood by difficult or bad men no matter what society thought of them, whereas men usually did not. Part of this can be chalked up to how society views the woman who stands by her jailed or difficult husband or son. It is considered noble and good for her to do so, and she is rarely painted with the same brush. Stories of long-suffering wives of difficult artist husbands are legion and they are spoken of (when they are acknowledged) with some admiration.

Douglas had quite a different experience. The thing he was proudest of in his life was how he had stood by Oscar Wilde and so when he read himself in Arthur Ransome’s Critical Study of Oscar Wilde as a young man who had used the playwright and abandoned him when the money ran out he sued for libel. He was prepared to prove that he had not abandoned Wilde at all, in fact he had given him a home and shared expenses with him. What he had not been counting on was that the court would not concern itself with the real matter of the case– whether he’d abandoned Wilde– but with the question of whether he was homosexual himself.  All of his evidence of devotion and loyalty was turned against him.

Many years later, Douglas would write that Justice Darling “literally trembled with outraged propriety when I admitted I had invited Wilde to my villa at Naples. ‘How could you?’ he said, ‘How could you, knowing what he was?’ This, be it observed, although the case of my opponents was precisely that I had ‘abandoned’ Wilde and was responsible for his ruin. One would have thought that even Mr. Justice Darling would have reflected that he could hardly have it both ways. You cannot logically at one and the same time accuse a man of ‘abandoning’ his friend and of receiving him as a guest in his villa!”

Today we take a different view of Douglas’s desire to live with Wilde, but there are still gender differences at play. The expectation of Constance Wilde is that she fulfills the role of wife by sticking with the difficult artist no matter what the circumstances. Douglas was brave in these terms. While Wilde was in jail Douglas had little thought for his own safety. Yet he could not be accepted on the same terms as a wife in his society. When he tried to make the claim that he was Wilde’s other person it was greeted as sickening or humorous by the culture at large. I believe many of his actions while Wilde was in prison would have been interpreted much more sympathetically had he been a young woman rather than a young man.

More interesting to me is the question of how Oscar Wilde’s tempestuous relationship with Alfred Douglas is viewed. Where Constance is admired for staying with a difficult husband who so often put his own needs and desires above hers, Wilde is not admired for staying with the difficult Alfred Douglas. If it was admirable for Constance to remain loyal to her husband as he spent all their money on lavish meals, gifts for rent boys, hotels and entertainment, it should be as admirable for Wilde to remain loyal to Douglas as he was reckless and emotionally volatile. Yet I have rarely heard the relationship described in those terms.

It may be, as Lord Alfred Douglas said, that women are braver than men because they will face the violence of public opinion. On the other hand, it can also be said that women do not need to brave the violence of public opinion because we are expected to make the difficult choice to support a man with all of his faults.

Quote of the Day: Space for Imagination to Play Out

We endure in a society where the mainstream orthodoxy would like us to accept that ‘there is no alternative’. One of the last great taboos is money and the associated economic system. If you consider our mono-currency as a societal tool imposed from the top down, it shapes and informs how we behave and the values we are expected to live by. In a way, it is like DNA; if we can change the DNA of our economy we could create new exchanges, values and social relations. We have become so used to this abstract construct that it is the water we swim in and the box we need to think out of. In order for people to start thinking that another world is possible we need to open up a space for imagination to play out. Art, games and play are some of the few remaining arenas available to engage in speculation about the future.

-Neil Farnan from an interview in Furtherfield on Utopoly, a version of the board game Monopoly that encourages players to imagine society based on values beyond the economic monoculture.

“Saw His Opportunity”

[Robbie Ross is] one of my greatest friends and one of the best fellows that ever lived.”- Lord Alfred Douglas, letter to his brother Percy, 1893.

31742378Years after Oscar Wilde died, two of his closes friends, Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross, found themselves locked in a bitter feud.

The conflict is the subject of my forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost. (Due out in August in the UK and November in the U.S., I believe.)

Over the years I was researching the book I read an exceptional amount of material written by people defending either Robert Ross or Lord Alfred Douglas from the other’s claims. (Douglas did more talking than Ross did.)

I have a pet peeve when it comes to the way people often talk about the conflict. I can sum it up in three words: “he saw his chance.” This expression is used by partisans of both men. From Douglas’s admirers (in truth he only really has “admirers” with reservations), it is Ross who always wanted to marginalize Douglas and at various points in the story “he saw his chance” to do so.  For example, Robert Ross acted as an intermediary while Wilde was in prison because Douglas was living in exile in France and had no direct communication. It is common for Douglas defenders to say that when Wilde began expressing negative sentiments about Douglas while he was in prison that Ross “saw his chance” to separate them.  (He did try to carry out Wilde’s instructions to get back his love letters to Douglas, but then again, he also tried to plead Douglas’s case to Wilde, which earned him a stern rebuke in a letter.)

A recent example that I came across from the other side talked about Douglas filing a libel suit against the author Arthur Ransome over his biography of Oscar Wilde, in which he was assisted by Robert Ross. The libel suit is central to the out and out war that was to erupt between Ross and Douglas. It was much more a dispute between them than against Ransome. He had the misfortune of being stuck in the middle. In describing these events one author explained that it was Douglas who had been jealous for years over Ross’s position as literary executor to Wilde and he saw his chance to get revenge. (In fact, Douglas had a whole host of motivations for filing his libel suit, some more laudable than others and Ross’s own actions certainly played a part in how his former friend reacted in that situation.)

In both cases, an image is painted of two men who were always at odds and who lay in wait for an opportunity to do harm to the other.  The only difference is where one attributes the malice.

I’ve often made the point here that we, in the west, approach history differently than people do in the east.  We learn to take a historical event and then work backwards, looking for the events that led up to it and plotting them as a straight line from one point to another. Quoting Richard Nisbett’s Geography of Thought:

Japanese teachers begin with setting the context of a given set of events in some detail. They then proceed through the important events in chronological order, linking each event to its successor. Teachers encourage their students to imagine the mental and emotional states of historical figures… Students are regarded as having good ability to think historically when they show empathy with the historical figures, including those who were Japan’s enemies. “How” questions are asked frequently— about twice as often as in American classrooms. American teachers spend less time setting the context than Japanese teachers do. They begin with the outcome, rather than with the initial event or catalyst. The chronological order of events is destroyed in presentation. Instead, the presentation is dictated by discussion of the causal factors assumed to be important (“ The Ottoman empire collapsed for three major reasons”). Students are considered to have good ability to reason historically when they are capable of adducing evidence to fit their causal model of the outcome. “Why” questions are asked twice as frequently in American classrooms as in Japanese classrooms.

Biographers have usually used a western framework in looking at the conflict between Ross and Douglas starting with the fact that they had a feud and then discussing the causal factors “The relationship collapsed for three major reasons…”

Looking at the relationship this way narrows the view and makes every disagreement between them a precursor of the big blow up. It has therefore been common to present the two men always in contrast, almost as mirror images of one another. In the film Wilde, Ross and Douglas are dramatically cast as Wilde’s good angel and his bad angel. If you want to find evidence that Ross and Douglas were always at odds, you can do it. Their relationship was punctuated with a number of arguments.

But then again, Robert Ross’s relationship with Wilde was punctuated by arguments as well and no one says they were not friends. In fact, Ross was drawn to artists with big, colorful personalities and all of the eccentricities and mood swings that come with them. Ross’s partner Freddie Smith, for example, was beautiful, charming and temperamental. George Ives had a relationship with Smith before he became involved with Ross (with a period of overlap) and his diary is full of references to Smith’s difficult character. Ross’s relationship with Smith was also full of arguing, as were his relationships with many of the artists he worked and socialized with. It is only because we know where their relationship finished that we interpret the arguments Ross had with Douglas as steps towards the final destruction.

Assuming that they were rivals from day one makes certain aspects of their story confusing. If they couldn’t stand each other why did Ross immediately join Douglas in France and stay with him for long periods as Wilde was in jail? (“I have a great friend with me who is also a great friend of my poor Oscar,” Douglas wrote to Andre Gide of Ross, “Although I am still very unhappy I can tell you that I feel better and less desperate.”) Why, when he first returned to England after his exile in France did Douglas write to More Adey to say he was “practically living” at Robert Ross’s house? (This after they’d had a disagreement about what Ross’s role might have been in breaking up Douglas’s living arrangement with Wilde.) Why did Ross provide a place for Douglas to meet secretly with the woman he would marry? Why did Douglas hire Ross at the journal he edited and write to others praising his writing? It makes more sense to say that Ross and Douglas, until their big split, were friends who had their ups and downs.  In fact, if they were not close to begin with, they probably would not have been so hurt by the other’s actions.

This brings me to another reason I object to the “saw his chance” frame. It assumes that Ross and Douglas did the things which laid the groundwork for the feud to hurt the other. I am a big believer in context. (That is probably why the initial version of Oscar’s Ghost was three times as long as the publisher wanted.) Ross and Douglas did annoy each other and do things that hurt the other but most of the time (until they were sworn enemies) they were acting to satisfy their own wants and needs, and within the dictates of their own personalities. Ross’s decisions on how to handle Wilde’s prison letter to Douglas, De Profundis, may have had as much to do with business and copyright issues as to Douglas’s sensibilities. Douglas certainly did not become a zealous religious convert in order to annoy Ross, but it had that effect. Douglas’s violent mood swings and outbursts of temper were not specific to Ross, even when they were directed at him.  Douglas had a large number of complex motivations for wanting to sue Arthur Ransome, some involving Ross, and some that had nothing to do with him. The unfortunate result is that two people who once loved each other came crashing into one another.

The British Working Class Social Comedy

There is a film genre that I enjoy quite a bit from the time I felPride_posterl in love with The Full Monty. For want of a better term, it’s the British working class social comedy. It’s best defined by examples: Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, and one I found at the library the other day, the 2014 film Pride.

They focus on episodes in the lives of communities that are losing their cohesion and identity as a result of steel mills or mines closing.  (One of my favorite moments in Billy Elliot is when young Billy walks down the street running a stick along what seems to be a wall, youthfully unaware that it is a line of riot gear clad police called in to deal with a labor strike.)

The films are populated with every day men and women dealing with social change as a community and they are uplifting and funny, even when their small victories are set against a bleak background.

Mark Herman, the writer of Brassed Off, explained his inspiration on a site called Den of Geek:

Following his previous film, the Dudley Moore-headlined Blame It On The Bellboy (that was savaged by critics, and didn’t find much salvation with audiences), Mark Herman told me back in 2008 that “I wrote a few what I thought were very commercial, sellable scripts, but after the reaction to Bellboy, nobody would touch me with a bargepole”.

Eventually, “the advice from my agent at the time was to not worry about whether a script is sellable or not, just write something that I care about”. Which is what he duly did.

A chance traffic jam was what led him to the north-eastern English town of Grimethorpe, a place he used to visit back in the 1970s when he sold bacon for a living. He recalled that “the miners’ strike [of the 1980s] was never off our TV screens, but the closures, and these effects of the closures, had been pretty much ignored by the media. Seeing the shops I used to visit all boarded up, seeing these places like ghost towns, seeing that it was now easier to buy drugs than bacon, made me want to write something about it”.

It strikes me that while we’ve heard a lot about these sort of failing industrial communities here in the U.S. in the news in recent years, I can’t really think of a good example of an American “Brassed Off” or “Full Monty.” If you know of one, please let me know. The only movie that jumps to mind is Nebraska from 2013, which is shot in black and white and focuses on a man in a rural midwest town who is convinced by one of those “You may already have won” sweepstakes letters that he has a million dollars waiting for him in Lincoln, Nebraska. He goes on a road trip with his son, with a stop in a fictional small Nebraska town being the highlight of the journey.

What is different in Nebraska is that it is more dark (its black and white cinematography may be part of what creates that mood). There is no small victory in Nebraska. It is also not really connected to the community it features. The travelers pass through and witness the place, but are not really part of it. It is an individual journey not a community journey.

Somehow this genre “feels” particularly British. I have posted before a clip of Stephen Fry discussing the differences between American and British humor and he puts forward the theory that American comedy is based on being the smartest guy in the room, a clever commentator on the surroundings, whereas the classic British comedy character is life’s loser. This clip quotes that segment of the Stephen Fry clip and challenges the notion.

 

One of the theories that the creator of this clip posits is that perhaps the American sense of optimism is eroding and that our sense of opportunity is becoming more like that of our British counterparts.

I have also found a number of recent articles on both sides of the Atlantic lamenting the “death” of the working class television sit com.

Wesley Morris, writing in The Australian, said:

In 2007, TV underwent a great expansion — beyond the major broadcast networks, beyond TVs and into all kinds of genres — just at the moment the economy shrank, and a fantasy emerged. As real people became poorer and lost their jobs, the ones on TV got richer, and their jobs seemed more besides the point. All that space to tell new stories ended up dedicated to a limited set of jobs and an increasingly homogeneous notion of what work means.

These days, there are only a handful of workplace taxonomies in scripted TV. We’ve got police precincts, crime-and-forensics teams and legal-medical-beltway dramas. NBC’s Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. are a virtual sexy-calendar night. These shows might know what a blue collar is, but they’re class-unconscious: their characters don’t usually work for the explicit maintenance of their livelihoods. They work for comedy, for suspense, for sport. For the most part, TV cops, lawyers, bureaucrats and doctors inhabit the same kinds of toothsome residences and wear the same exquisitely tailored clothes, all showing off how fabulously art directors and costume designers earn a pay cheque. Sometimes we see more of their work than that done by the people who inhabit it. Now on TV, no matter what your actual job, almost everybody belongs to the same generic, vaguely upper-class class.

So where are the Roseanne’s and the Archie Bunkers? Is their absence to blame for some of the resentment of “rust belt” and rural voters who feel no one hears them? Has our comedy as well as our politics made them invisible?

The British writer and broadcaster Caitlin Moran has a theory that “a deliberate, systematic attack on the working classes” has made it harder to write mainstream comedy about those communities.  “Comedy needs your characters’ lives to stay static,” she said. “They have to be trapped in a frustrating box they can never get out of. But there was such a terrible decline in the lives of the working classes – which continues now – that there was no stable box to write from.”

I will have to give some more thought to whether the basis of comedy is, indeed, being trapped in a static situation. (This seems to go back to the question of British vs. American comedy and whether comedy is found in being the smartest person in the room, or in failure.)

Anyway, if you can recommend a good movie “for people who liked The Full Monty” let me know.