Abraham del Court and his wife Maria de Kaersgieter (detail), 1654 Bartholomeus van der Helst
Here are a couple of thoughts on novel endings: Several years ago, the show Six Feet Under, concluded the series by showing the deaths of all the main characters. It was the only ending for a show about a funeral home that began each episode with a death (or deaths), and it’s brilliant because, well, in the narrative and larger sense, death is the end of the line.
But every novel cannot end with, “So, everybody died.” If you, the writer, did that you would find yourself in possession of the sort of reputation that few writers really want: You will be the predictable writer. You will be the, if-you’ve-read-one-you’ve-read-them-all writer.
A perfect ending is one that is both complete and yet open. It’s an ending/not an ending. Everyone will one day die, but not right now.
Many readers have the experience of reading a novel that begins so promising, becomes great, then goes into decline somewhere around the three-quarter mark, finally grinding to a ham-handed halt. How could this happen, cries the reader?
This is my theory. I once read where Cezanne said the hardest thing to paint was the human hand. The ending of a novel is the writer’s human hand. It’s just so hard to paint.
Two: Why is Otis, who is looking particularly youth and spry these days— more like nine years old instead of eighteen—slinking into our bedroom every night, in the middle of the night, to walk—not run—around and around our bed, as if he is doing laps, then leaves?
There was the accidental OD last summer that resulted in a near-death experience that segued into another issue where Otis ended up being shaved from the hips down, revealing his previously disguised lineage to a pterodactyl, accentuated by his prehistoric bone structure and lack of a tail. He also looked a little one of those carpet covered armatures that the sadistic behavioral scientist, Harry Harlow, pawned off as mother figures on infant rhesus monkeys in order to illustrate something completely obvious while torturing small animals. (I’m not saying that some mothers don’t resemble carpet covered armatures, but that’s another story.) My eighth grade class was forced to watch one of Mr. Harlow’s films where confused, motherless baby monkeys clung fearfully to a little piece of low-pile shag, too afraid to hope for anything better. I realize now that this was simply an educational film preparing us for our future work lives.
Back to Otis who decided that it wasn’t enough to get us up twice a night to let him out, then back in (and, for anyone suggesting that we ignore his loud, insistent meowing when inside the house and out, let me just say, “Gee, we hadn’t thought of that”); he added to his nightly repertoire by demanding to be fed at two am, every night, like he owned an iphone with a preset alarm. And it wasn’t enough to feed him—no, he wanted me to watch him eat, as if he is suddenly a dinner guest at Downton Abbey.
(Side note: I have a friend who had a cat that got her up at 2:15 every morning to turn his food dish a little to the left. I used to laugh at this story.)
This was around the time I added cursing to my repertoire, since refusing to feed, observe, and open the door was not an option (Otis possesses the single-minded tenacity of a toddler in a grocery store.)
Then one day, about six weeks ago, after his observed two a.m. meal (clearly the inspiration for Taco Bell’s “Fourth Meal” ad campaign) and exit from the house, Otis did not cry to be let back inside at five am. John and I didn’t even notice his absence until later that night—something I can only chalk up to the short-term memory of the chronically sleep deprived.
Otis was missing for thirty hours and when John finally located him under a bush. It turned out that he had a punctured lung, front claws ground down to nubs (the vet said, they were probably dragged across concrete or asphalt), and six broken ribs. And, Reader, hesurvived. Otis was Hit By A CAR, then went without any medical attention for THIRTY HOURS, and is EIGHTEEN YEARS OLD. (FYI: Most outdoor cats are lucky to make it to five years old, especially if they live in a city; Otis lives in a city on a well-traveled street so his life span in pretty impressive. If only he were a lottery ticket.) To put his age into people terms: If Otis were human he would be graduating from high school and making bad decisions in Cabo.
Here is the abridged version of Otis’s last year:
Spring 2012: Diagnosed with bone cancer. Prognosis: seven months.
Summer 2012: Despite the cancer prediction, Otis is Otis. As a matter of fact, his appetite is so healthy that his food isn’t enough. He eats the dog’s food and, in the process, swallows enough codeine for a 42 pound canine. Prognosis: ”We’ll know is a couple of days.”
Summer 2012: Diagnosed with failing kidneys. Prognosis: Seven months, with regular fluids.
Summer 2013: Car accident. Prognosis: Death within forty-eight hours, or he will survive.
And he’s never been on regular medication, nor is he now. The fluids? He’s received them twice. Unless by fluids you mean our bank account. Maybe next year we can take a vacation…
Snow House, 2013 Santambrogiomilano Architects, Italian
Designed to be built almost anywhere around the world and allow the inhabitant to be completely immersed in nature. every component of the dwellings, except for the ground floor, is composed of structural glass pieces. the ‘snow house,’ as the name implies, would be located in colder climates and is constructed of thicker panes capable of withstanding larger loads, namely from the snow, and will help insulate the interior. with the touch of a button, the special glass panels instantly turn matte for privacy, and sliding curtains make it possible to further close off specific rooms.
I was asked by the three people who read these posts what I thought of the final episode of Downton Abbey. Now I know I said in my last post that I was done until the Christmas special but, as it turns out, in the U.K. the death of Matthew Crawley was the Christmas special. So.
How does a young, healthy, sober man get into a car accident on an empty road on a sunny day with a milk truck that I can beat in a foot race? It isn’t as if Matthew was eating an eclair, then took a swig of coffee that spilled down the front of his impeccable shirt causing him to take his eyes of the road in order to gauge the magnitude of the stain, then decided that perhaps he could get it out with saliva, whereupon he began gnawing wetly on his own button placket, all the while fiddling with the radio trying to find a station that wasn’t playing ”Hotel California” and failing that, propelled his Stutz Bearcat into the nearest available obstruction (milk truck) in an attempt to, dear god, make it stop.
Instead, Matthew’s death reads like the work of ne’er-do-well, marginally embittered writers who were tired of Dan Stevens (Matthew) bursting into their office, interrupting whatever time wasting activity in which they were involved in the name of “research,” demanding to know exactly when he would be available to pursue “other professional opportunities.” Thus serving to remind the writers how lucky they were to have this opportunity because “marketing departments dictate the literary marketplace,” leaving them so few options in the book world, that their response was to write what can only be described as a “just fucking go already” scene.
Question: Is Downton Abbey a scientific experiment in “life out of order”, or the most impressive example of job security ever for older actors ever? (Subset question: Did they turn Downton Abbey into an officers’ military hospital to test the viewers’ willingness to accept Downton as a high end retirement home?)
Downton is a place of death. Specifically, young, untimely death: the randy Turkish fellow, the virginal footman who loved Daisy and died of something that I believe is called We’re Tired of Writing Dull Dialog For You disease; the beautiful Lady Sybil who channels her inner Chatterley by taking up with the chauffeur; Miss Swire who was interchangeable with Lord Grantham’s dog, Isis, in terms of her dramatic impact, and, of course, Matthew. (Eighteen year-old Cousin Rose was at Downton for two days before she got shipped back to Scotland. Let me just say, Whew! Close one.)
I don’t know quite how to say this so I will just say it: The key to unexpected turns of events is to make them unexpected. For example, if you predictably only kill off anyone under the age of thirty, you thereby establish what is known as “a pattern.” A pattern could be considered the opposite of the unexpected. Just something to think about during all that free time the Downton writers now have due to spending exactly three seconds coming up with Matthew Crawley’s death.
Question: Why Don’t The Crawley’s Ever Go Anywhere?
They’re rich. They’re retired. They have great clothes, and no one needs to lose ten pounds before attending a social event, and yet the only place they ever venture is to the drawing room and the dining room in a house the size of the nearby village. The last movie I saw that was historical and set in a mansion where no one ever left the premises, was The Others, with Nicole Kidman. All I’m saying, Downton, is it’s been done.
Just when it seemed that the Crawleys shared a genetic disposition to some sort of agoraphobia, they went to visit Rose’s parents in Scotland—no doubt with the intention of “inviting Rose back to Downton” once they realized she had craftily escaped with her young life. I can’t quite imagine how the Crawleys all came to be sitting around in the drawing room (or dining room), having a family meeting on where to take a week’s vacation as if they only have seven days of vacation left on their time cards, and no one suggests “Paris.” Or “Cairo.” How does “Let’s go see Shrimpy and Lady Shrimpy (aka The Bickersons) in the desolate north in that forbidding manor with the DIY rifle-flower wall art and no central heating” win? Did someone have a wager to settle?
Question: How old were the Shrimpys when they had Cousin Rose?
Odd chronological familial relations is a kind of mini-staple in visual entertainment, to the extent that more than a few casting decisions look more like someone calling in a favor than actually paying attention to the reproductive cycle of the average human female. How else to explain:
1. Marian and Winthrop Paroo
In The Music Man we are introduced to Marian (The Librarian) who lives with her widowed mother and her younger brother, Winthrop. Marian is old enough to be considered a spinster and looks about thirty years old. Winthrop is maybe six years old. I believe Mrs. Paroo’s heavy Irish brogue is a diversionary tactic to prevent us from “doing the math.”
2. Mitch and Kathy Brenner
Mitch Brenner frequently visits his widowed mother and younger sister, Kathy, in sleepy little Bodega Bay, soon to be a vacation spot for The Birds. Ages run crazy all over the place. Mitch looks to be pushing forty, so in 1960s years he’s probably more like thirty-two years old. Kathy is twelve. The Widow Brenner looks about fifty. It’s possible for her to have had Mitch at eighteen and Kathy at thirty-eight, but who plans a family with an entire generational span between siblings and no one in between? I mean, don’t they sort of cease to be siblings and become more like a guy and his mom and “that girl.”
3. The Von Trapps
Nothing seems amiss, until Liesl ‘I-am-sixteen-going-on-forty” von Trapp shows up in the whistle line-up. It’s a testament to Julie Andrew’s acting that when she’s introduced to the children, played by actors who all look age appropriate with the exception of the young matron, Liesl von Trapp, stomping out their names and ages, that she waits until the toad scene at the dinner table to accuse them of “pulling her leg.”
Question: Why Do I Expect The Actors Playing The Servants Only To Leave Their Acting Job at Downton Abbey If Asked To?
It is also a testament to the veracity of Downton Abbey that only the people upstairs seem to be able to leave the show; downstairs it seems they are lucky to have that job. I mean, I have to remind myself that they aren’t really servants with prescribed lives but actors who are playing servants with prescribed lives. Yet somehow I find myself reading about Matthew or Lady Sybil getting other acting opportunities and thinking, well, of course. Yet I somehow know that if O’Brien suddenly showed up as a Broadway lead, or Jimmy the Footman was the new regular on GIRLS I would find myself thinking, Really? Who knew? Followed by a good for them!, as if they had, by sheer luck, escaped their sad little basement life.
My prediction: Jimmy and Thomas will fall in love, though Thomas will tire of him because all those cute little things that were once so endearing—monkeying with the lobster spoons, threatening to call the police—will soon become quite tiresome. But I will leave that for another season.
In the meantime, I’d like to sort out the upstairs mysteries of Downton Abbey.
Money & the Lord
For me, Lord Grantham has been a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a dinner jacket, then wrapped in his old military uniform when he believed he was being called into service during the Great War, only be embarrassed back into the real world, and so returned to being rewrapped in a dinner jacket. But I now think I may know what Lord Grantham is about: He is lazy. Not just lazy, but full-on, lard-ass move-it-mister lazy.
He thinks his financial advisor/lawyer/whatever is some sort of pest and tells Matthew not to let this man “bother him,” as if he’s someone’s funny uncle that must be tolerated. He spends like someone on a bender, What? An investment in railroads? Oh, because of the war and the destruction and the reality they will need to rebuild? And, let me see if I understand, you want ALL my cash? Canada? Well, what can I say except put me down for one hundred percent of everything I own, in a country without a single battleground! No, no. All of it! Baby needs new shoes!
Did he go into the study that he never leaves, inside the house that he never leaves, spin the globe near his desk and invest in the place where his finger landed? Lord Grantham didn’t even need to mention Charles Ponzi in the last episode for us to know that he is eighty years and one Internet friending from sending funds to a Nigerian prince.
Is it possible to be too lazy to even pick up a newspaper? Just how indolent is indolent?
Case in point: Lord Grantham’s quasi-affair with the new housemaid last season. He lives in a castle the size of a castle yet insists that she come to his room, the one separated from his wife’s by one of those connecting motel doors, because it would be asking too much that they meet in one of the other 425 chambers of Downton. He would rather risk his marriage than walk down the hall or a flight of stairs. One can only imagine who would be doing all the heavy lifting had that relationship ever progressed; I’m guessing it would be a lot more take and very little give, if you get my drift.
The servants of Downton are really like Lord Grantham’s sloth beard. Bates dresses him, listens to him prattle on until he’s incarcerated (hey, maybe that’s why Bates was such a hair trigger in the gaol?), then Thomas takes over. Everyone else brings him food and information (unless it’s financial information and then even listening becomes too much work). There’s nothing like a phalanx of servants treating you like a veal to mask your lazy ass self.
He even has beard friends—Dr. Clarkson, the vicar, Tom Branson’s brother who, unfortunately, recalls nothing so much as a pedophile with anger issues—but no real friends because the effort required just to pick up the phone is simply too much. In short, Lord Grantham is that guy who comes to spend a weekend on your couch in San Francisco with no plans and an open plane ticket.
His utter lack of ambition does explain his entire 3-point financial strategy of:
1. Be born into wealth.
2. Marry wealth.
3. Accept gifts of wealth.
A program, I should say, I am totally down with.
The Trials of Lady Edith
The narrative of Lady Edith in Downton Abbey is eerily reminiscent of Zero Dark Thirty: the torture scenes. My confusion here is, when they finally break her, what is it they want her to say? Hey, thanks for making me the plain, resentful sister when being the plain sister would’ve been sufficient? Are you not familiar with the term “overkill?”
That Downton never stops torturing Poor Lady Edith is impressive. It’s like she’s a heroine in one of those Victorian novels that involves a kidnapping and a snuggery. First, she rats out her own sister (evidence of her bitterness, which is an admission of her lack of desirability and popularity, you know, in case we missed the point). Then she’s helping out on some farm where she ends up kissing a farmer who, I’m pretty sure, has never been into anything dentally related. Then she tells her ancient fiancé that not only does she want to take care of him, but that he will be her “life’s work” as if she’s suddenly Vincent Price, while he smiles wanly, his eyes darting around for a door as he happens to mention some recently widowed duchess that he dated back in the 19th century.
Let’s see, Lady Edith…the plain one (check); overlooked daughter (check); left at the altar (check); spinsterhood (check); no meals in bed (check)—What fresh hell is left? What can possibly continue her pattern of humiliation, rejection and heartbreak? What profession (a word that makes her father retire to his study and imitate the vocalizations of a howler monkey) would provide all that and more? Could it be…a writer?
A Final Musing
What is with that pathetic Grapes of Wrath farm Matthew and company keep visiting? And why is it every time the conversation turns to the vast holdings of Downton and how to make them work efficiently enough to preserve the estate for future generations, all roads lead back to that sad little Dorothea Lange farm? We’ve never seen a single person living there yet all Matthew talks about is raising the rent, which, if I’m not mistaken, requires renters to put into effect. And why is it that when the Crawley’s are considering a place for Tom Branson and Baby Sybil to live the only thing they can come up with is that same sad little farm instead of, say, the swanky manse that the Crawleys keep empty in case they lose everything (again)? Why can’t Tom and Baby Sybil live there? Why are Tom’s choices the sad little Dust Bowl farm or his pedophile-with-anger-issues brother’s garage apartment? And, if Tom does move into the sad little farm wouldn’t they be raising his rent? As part of the family, wouldn’t they be paying him to pay them, thus creating the sort of lazy ass financial scheme that only Lord Grantham could love?
I recently came across one of those popular article inserts asking Who are you in Downton Abbey? I’m sure everyone rushed to their local water cooler to declare themselves “a Mrs. Patmore” or that sweaty looking wanna-be valet with the bad comb over last seen working at Mrs. Crawley’s. I’m having a t-shirt made right at this moment that reads “I’m an O’Brien,” as I pull back my hair, leaving only two tiny cocktail weenie curls, symmetrically located on my sour little face (Question: Is it by accident or design that O’Brien and Jan Brady have the exact same forehead hair and sense of social injustice? Discuss.) Before I leave this paragraph entirely, I have no idea what the wanna-be valet actually does at Downton. He isn’t a footman. He isn’t a valet (as we know). I’ve never seen him cooking or polishing silver…come to think of it, I only see him at mealtime, seated somewhere between Anna and Alfred, reminiscent of the groupies “eating all the steak” backstage in Almost Famous.
The Almost Famous valet is only one of the many characters that I no longer understand in this season’s Downton Abbey. Let’s begin downstairs, shall we?
Daisy and The Footmen
While Daisy and the Footmen, sounds like a cross between a Victorian novel by Anonymous and an independent film produced in the San Fernando Valley, circa 1978, it’s really more of an historical Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. To recap: Daisy likes Alfred who is the first footman. He likes the new rouge-wearing kitchen maid, who in turn has eyes for the second footman, Jimmy, who is appears to like Daisy, who likes Alfred, and so on. But wait! Is that the pizza delivery guy at the door, natty in his valet’s uniform, all roving eyes and hands, directing innuendos at the uncomfortable Jimmy? Hullooo Thomas!
Hot Tramp, I Love You So, or Ethel
I realize that the comical value of any given name often depends upon one’s generation. It doesn’t help that almost every single one hundred year old girl’s name has come back into style—except Ethel. Ethel is pretty much the exact mathematical opposite of erotic (the other opposite of erotic at Downton is Lady Edith). Or that the only Ethel many of us ever knew was Ethel Mertz, Lucy and Desi’s homebound tenant who had clearly married a man old enough to be her grandfather, thus establishing the accepted generational span for most Los Angeles marriages. That Ethel Mertz traded her youth for a one bedroom apartment and a pair of landlords who were home often enough to constantly be on you to “turn the music down” is almost as sad as the story of Downton’s Ethel, a young women with what can only be described as a spectacular case of cooties.
Aurally, the Bate’s narrative is comparable to the difficulty of the accents in Trainspotting. Though I couldn’t always catch what was being said in that film, I could at least hear them. I am so taxed trying to understand Bates and his roommate and the prison guard and the friendly inmate that I now have a deep furrow between my eyebrows from squinting with effort. Why? Since my ears didn’t seem to be adequate to the task, I had to enlist the help of my eyes, as if all my senses are just some kind of massive power source of comprehension. Worse, I’m filling in so much of the storyline that I am one professional contract and two postage stamps away from charging Julian Fellowes with my writing services.
Why is Bates being framed? Why, since he’s already convicted of murder, does anyone want to plant that large cigar in his bunk, the one that he hid between the bricks of his cell before transferring it to his cellmate’s bunk? Who stands to gain from Bates remaining in prison? When did Bates become such an Important Person in the English prison system?
All I know is that Bates has a cellmate who is in cahoots with a guard, and both of them are working overtime to make sure that Bates never gets out. They remind me of the boy on the grade school playground who keeps harassing his female classmate because he “likes her.” Downton, am I close?
Additionally, Bates keeps periodically grabbing his cellmate by the shirt and ramming him up against a wall: In their shared cell, and in the prison passage way. Last week Bates yanked him from their queue in the exercise yard, forcing him up against yet another wall in a secluded niche, this time with a small knife to the throat. Let me see if I’m using the term correctly: Is this what is meant by rough trade?