Monday, September 30, 2013

Nothing New Under the Sun

What do Alfred Hitchcock and my first time acting in a play have in common? I shall attempt to explain.

Thisbe listening to Pyramus through the wall
Last night, we watched 'The Man Who Knew Too Much', which is a rather classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Unfortunately for me, it wasn't the one I wanted to see. Alfred Hitchcock remade just about every movie he ever made, so I got to see his first version of 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' rather than his last version (which is the one I really wanted to see).

Remakes are certainly not new things. Ecclesiastes 1:9 says quite eloquently, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." which has been paraphrased so many times many of us have probably forgotten where it came from. Nothing new, eh? Shakespeare loved to write about things that had already happened; in fact, Romeo and Juliet is a remake of a much earlier play, Pyramus and Thisbe, which the Romans like to observe and has the same old theme of forbidden love and two people who accidentally kill themselves because they think the other is already dead...

Whatever it is, Humankind seems doomed to repeat things. There’s this philosophy that if it’s not broken, don’t fix it, but most times there’s a repetition of actions with an expectation of different results…which sounds like madness to me. I don’t know how many people have tried to take over the world, but there have been many, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolph Hitler and sometimes things get just weirdly repetitious like both Napoleon and Hitler meeting destruction in the Russian winter.

But I haven’t mentioned my first time acting in a play, so consider it mentioned. I was eight years old and scared to death and Rose was even scareder. I remember getting out onto the stage and seeing everyone grinning in the audience below. With a terrible and wonderful mix of fear and exhilaration I began to speak. We were doing a scene from A Midsummer’s Night Dream and I was playing Flute who was playing Thisbe. I can only remember one of my lines.

“I’ll meet thee Pyramus at Ninnies tomb…”


Monday, September 23, 2013

Urban Legends

Ichabod Crane fleeing the Headless Horseman
An urban legend is a tale told through the years by many different people; normally the author is unknown and no one is really quite sure whether to believe it or not. The Old English epic poem ‘Beowulf’ is a good example; during the time parts of England were under the control of Denmark, the story became familiar. Even today some people in northern Yorkshire still believe in ‘Grindylows’ or water spirits living in their streams and swamps.

 The story of the Headless Horseman is one American urban legend I’ve always liked. The story went that a dead Hessian soldier left over from the American Revolution rode around with his head under his arm; Washington Irving turned it into a practical joke when he wrote ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. Even ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ by Sir Arthur Conon Doyle was based on the ‘Yeth Hound’, an urban legend that still runs wild in Devon, England today.

Like the ‘Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘The Decameron’ is a set of short, moral stories that were half-way to becoming urban legends even in their day. Boccaccio began creating ‘The Decameron’ in 1350, but probably even before he was through people half believed his tales had really happened. They would have been passed from person to person like an old version of a ‘chain email’. The Decameron contains everything from tragedies to practical jokes. The themes that occur in The Decameron are old ones and have been used since by as diverse writers as Edgar Allen Poe and Longfellow in his ‘Tales of a Wayside Inn’.

Urban legends come in all shapes and sizes, from the Loch Ness Monster to the Mermaids Columbus swore he saw; even if we don’t quite believe they’re real, they make our world just a little more interesting. Anyone seen the Half Moon sailing up the Hudson, or The Flying Dutchman racing over the seven seas? No? Maybe you still will.


PS: I wrote this for a humanities assignment, so if it seems unorganized and strange, that's why. Enjoy!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Very Unexpected Adventure

Yes, I dropped into Middle Earth and took this picture myself

Yes, I've finally gotten around to watching 'An Unexpected Adventure' and liked it so much, I'd like to watch the next one in a theater.

Curiously enough, the trilogy The Lord of the Rings seemed to me like Tolkien's second attempt at The Hobbit; now The Hobbit is Peter Jackson's second attempt at The Lord of the Rings.

At first glance the thing that hit me immediately was the incredible attention to detail at every turn. I'm sure The Lord of the Rings had a similar attention to detail, but perhaps seeing The Hobbit on a better screen made me more aware. The filmmakers left nothing to chance like they did with The Lord of the Rings; I had the distinct impression that they knew what they were doing this time. The script was thoughtful and the visual effects were honestly stunning; light years ahead of the somewhat cumbersome work in its predecessors. I'll probably never tire of watching the wind ripple through the CGI feathers of the eagles in the final scenes.

The casting is excellent. Through the movie's nearly three hour run time I didn't notice a spot of bad acting. I'll never forgive Viggo Mortensen's horrific acting, or Liv Tyler's; Even Elijah Wood with his iridescent eyes was bland. In contrast, Martin Freeman as Bilbo was a streak of genus and I don't wonder at Jackson's persistence in getting him to accept the part. The thirteen dwarfs (oh wait, that's 'dwarves' isn't it?) are in a category of their own. Peter Jackson put off making the Hobbit for so long because of the dwarves; it was going to be a little like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, only worse. I was frankly lost in the novel what with Filis and Kilis, Gloins and Oins running about in an unordered mass. Fortunately, the wait paid off; each of the dwarves has a distinct personality and appearance, breaking into little pieces the rule that all dwarves must be fat, dumpy and ugly. The fan girls must be pleased.

When I first read The Hobbit back when I was twelve, I was disappointed. The plot seemed a little pointless; it appeared that it was just a pack of greedy dwarves off to take back a treasure that wasn't entirely theirs (killing the dragon wasn't even in the mix). In the film (actually, I shouldn't call it that) a new meaning has been infused; there's more at stake than the gold, and adding the subplots from the appendices (which I have not read) is extremely intriguing.

Of course with all its strong points, there are weak points as well. Like The Lord of the Rings the thing moves slowly in places and the battle scenes are often excessive and less than believable. I don't mind a few dead enemies, but our heroes plow through hundreds of them in a death defying manner and come out without a scratch at the other end (their swords are still shiny, too). I understand they have to leave the blood out in order to keep it PG-13, but wouldn't a few high quality sword fights have been better?

I watched the movie a second time (which is unusual for me), doing my own editing and ended up enjoying it even more than the first time around. There are a few scenes from The Lord of the Rings that I'll always remember; the Charge of Rohirrim, with the very earth shaking under my feet and the frankly heart rending death of Boromir, but now, I'll also be remembering the hauntingly beautiful Over the Misty Mountains Cold sung in the rumbling voices of the actors themselves.

To put it in a nutshell, I enjoyed it and I'm awaiting the next installment eagerly.


PS: You've probably all seen this, but I couldn't help putting it in...

Friday, September 6, 2013

But One Life

I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.

File:Nathan Hale Signature.svg

One of the most interesting parts of the American Revolution is the extensive collection of spy rings who gathered intelligence for the continental army. The Culper spy ring was one of these, one of the best.

This ring managed to continue to successfully send information to General Washington throughout the war. A major feat, considering that the countryside was occupied by the enemy, who kept as much control on the travel of the inhabitants as possible. 
The Culper ring was started in November of 1778 by Major Benjamin Tallmadge under direct orders of General Washington. Major Tallmadge was also to report the gathered intelligence directly to General Washington.
The ring was to target New York City, which was, at that time, the headquarters of the British army. This information would give the American continental army a badly needed advantage over the British forces.
The continental army was greatly inferior to British army. They were untrained, had lesser numbers and inferior weaponry. The Americans needed every advantage they could get to survive, let alone win, the war.
Major Tallmadge, a Yale graduate and an officer in the Second Continental Light Dragoons, was an ideal choice. He had been born on Long Island and had many trusted friends who still lived there. Many of the agents involved in transmitting the information were among Major Tallmadge’s friends.   
The first member of the Culper ring was a man by the name of Abraham Woodhull. Major Tallmadge gave him the code name ‘Samuel Culper, Senior’ from which the ring derived its name. Major Tallmadge was referred to as John Bolton within the ring. General Washington was known as agent 711. Washington never had direct contact with any of his spies, except Major Tallmadge who only handled the spy rings.  
Abraham Woodhull became a ‘receiver’ of information from the agents inside New York City. He then sent the information to Major Tallmadge, who would then report to General Washington.
One of the agents inside New York City was known only as Samuel Culper, Junior until 1930, when handwriting expert finally connected Culper Junior’s handwriting with that of Robert Townsend, a Quaker merchant whose business was in New York City.
Robert Townsend was, again, in an ideal situation. He was a Quaker, which meant that he was supposed to be against war, but like many Quakers of the time, he chose to take a side. He was a merchant, which put him in contact with many people. Townsend was also an amateur journalist and wrote occasionally for the New York Royal Gazette, a strongly Tory newspaper. Robert Townsend continued to write and publish pro British articles to mask the fact that he was actually working for the patriots.
In 1959, it was proved that the printer James Rivington, who was the publisher of the Royal Gazette, was actually a patriot working with Culper Junior gathering information. James Rivington never told of his activities, so he was always hated as a ‘Tory’ and died in poverty, despised by his fellow Americans.
Because James Rivington was the printer of and Robert Townsend was a reporter for a Tory newspaper, they were trusted by the pro British population of New York and made the acquaintance of many British officers, one of whom was Major John Andre.
Major Andre was a British spy connected to the defection of General Benedict Arnold, who was later captured and executed by the Americans. James Rivington published Major Andre’s poetry and gained much information from him without his knowledge.
The intermediate between Culper, Senior and Culper, Junior was a tavern keeper named Austen Roe who purchased his supplies from Robert Townsend. This gave them a way to send secret information in unsuspicious legitimate packages, often of regular blank paper.
Culper Junior had a secret ink, which he used to write his messages to Culper, Senior. This ink was invented by Sir James Jay, an English doctor whose hobby was chemistry. Sir James just happened to be the brother of John Jay, who was an influential patriot working with General Washington in intelligence and counterintelligence.
If the ink was used, the writing, which was invisible, would only appear if treated with its developer. Other chemicals would not reveal the writing and neither would heat. Major Tallmadge was the only person who possessed the developer and Culper, Junior was the only person who possessed the ink, so that if the spies’ houses were searched by the British, only one chemical, if discovered, would not be able to be identified as easily if it did not have its developer with it.
Culper, Junior sent his communications to Austin Roe, who would then deliver them to Culper, Senior. This he did by putting the papers in a box and burying the box on Culper, Senior’s farm. Culper, Senior then recovered the papers.
After Culper Senior received a communication from Culper, Junior through Austin Roe, he would watch for the signal that would tell him that next leg of the journey of the information was ready. This was done in a very interesting manner.
Anna Smith Strong was the wife of a man who had been jailed by the British for “surreptitious communication with the enemy.” She lived within sight of Culper, Senior’s farm and was in communication with a certain Caleb Brewster, who was a blacksmith.
However, Caleb Brewster was not just a blacksmith. He also owned a whaleboat and was an accomplished boatman. He would prepare his boat and tell Anna Strong where his boat was hidden. She would then hang out her clothes on her line in a prearranged pattern which would tell Culper, Senior where the boat was.
Caleb Brewster took the messages through the British lines to the waiting currier, who then brought the messages to Major Tallmadge. Major Tallmadge developed the ink and reported to General Washington.  
Like the Culpers, most of the agents of the Culper ring were civilians, the identities of many are still not known today. Some, though, were dragoons under Tallmadge’s command. One in particular was Elijah Churchill.    
Churchill became involved in the transmission of information and orders between Major Tallmadge, Culper, Junior and Culper, Senior. Elijah Churchill later became the first recipient of the Badge of Military Merit that would eventually become the Purple Heart medal. 
Tallmadge also had another connection to American espionage, which may have contributed to his motivation. He was a close friend of Nathan Hale, an American spy who was executed in 1776 by the British after having been caught in disguise on Long Island. It was Hale who said, ‘I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.’
These words are some of the most famous to have come out of the war for American independence and Hale was not alone in his sentiments. Every member of the American intelligence was working at risk of their lives for the survival of their country. Some, like Hale, did lose their lives.  
The stories of these brave people were so well guarded that we may never know everything that happened, but the stories of the secrets are always the most intriguing. The unsung heroes are often the most important ones.    


If you are interested in why the picture that is so obviously George Washington is labeled Dort, it's a long story. It refers to a time when Rose loved Curious George, but couldn't quite say George. She managed only Dort and Dort remains a running joke in our family. Even the illustrious Washington has not escaped this fate.

Monday, September 2, 2013


Every year, around the end of August and the beginning of September, I wake up at the crack of dawn and sit shivering in the dew with my camera at the ready. I thought, because we've gotten to that time of year again, I'd share a bit about my love of butterflies.

Butterflies, as you probably know, are insects of the order Lepidoptera. They can be found anywhere from the grassy slopes of snow frosted mountains to the flowers of a cactus. They range from the tiny Barber's Blue with its half inch wingspan to the Queen Alexandra's Birdwing with brown and blue painted wings reaching a foot across or more. Some butterflies, like the Monarch, fly on migrations taking them more than two thousand miles.

With their elegantly colored wings and graceful bodies, butterflies are remarkably beautiful; often depicted in art and mythology. In many cultures butterflies symbolize the soul. In Greek the word for butterfly is ‘psyche’, which means ‘soul’...sound familiar? Yes! That's my username. If you didn't already know, Psyche was a character in a Greek myth which involved Venus, the jealous mother and her son, Cupid, getting nicked by his own arrow and falling in love with you-know-who...
 Butterflies also symbolize rebirth or reawakening because of their peculiar life cycle. Butterflies undergo metamorphosis, which literally means ‘change form’. You might happen to see a leaf with tiny white eggs, glued there by the female. In the due process of time, usually a few weeks, the eggs will hatch and you will not see butterflies climbing out. The next stage of life is the larvae, or caterpillar, which literally means ‘hairy cat’. The caterpillar is jointed, with a set of suction cups front and back for a good grip. If butterflies differ from each other, caterpillars do, too. The Monarchs is very flashy in black and yellow, while the Saddleback caterpillar looks otherworldly, resembling something like a cross between a porcupine and a hotdog topped with relish and ketchup. Once they hatch, the caterpillars begin to eat, starting with their eggshells; then they mow down your garden. Caterpillars are eating machines and spend almost all their time at it. They grow substantially in a very short amount of time, going from almost microscopic to well over an inch depending on the species.  
The final transformation is the most spectacular. As time passes, the chrysalis grows transparent and at last, bursts open, releasing an insect with a pair of damp colorful pads on its back. Fluid is pumped from the butterfly’s abdomen into a network of veins, and slowly the pads turn into a pair of beautiful wings which soon solidify. At last, the butterfly takes flight flashing through the sky like a wayward flower.

A butterfly’s natural purpose in life is not simply to please the eye, but also to pollinate flowers. A butterfly exists almost solely off the nectar found in flowers and in return, the butterfly carries off the means of continuing the flower, pollen. 

The butterfly has puzzled and fascinated every culture on earth, from the Egyptians of 3500 years ago to the present world, and has served as an allegorical subject of literature and art. They take flight in the realms of fantasy and their wing structures are studied for improved aircraft designs. A butterfly is also an often used symbol of spiritual rebirth, seeming to almost perfectly represent man’s journey from a wormlike sinner to a new man, changed by God.

Every summer I watch butterflies undergo their marvelous cycles. This past summer, I saw a clouded yellow and several monarch butterflies emerge from their chrysalises to grace the world with their beauty. I saw them cling to plant stems or house walls, their jewel-like eyes glowing and feathered wings quivering in the wind.  At last they left me, fluttering away, wings flashing sunlight, and my heart going with them as they coursed the breezes on the front lawn.