Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cicadas

Apologies to Charles Dickens.

It was the blessed of climes until that burst of chimes…

…cicadas.

The cicadas are coming! The cicadas are humming!

We heard about it all winter, but faced with the tsunami of plagues filling our 2021 calendars (covid, anti-vaxxers, wildfires, floods, sonic assaults from Havana and Mar-a-Lago, the inexplicable inability of the Reds to hit left-handed pitching, and Hannity), strident sibilation from a bug seemed a low priority on the fret list.

And for the most part it was no big deal. Oh, there were a few stretches of scratchy serenades, wound-tight whiny choirs, and one full-blown hella-to-ya chorus I remember, but mostly the cicadian rhythms became just one more orchestra section for my backyard summer symphony.

Recently I found a solitary simulacrum on the back of our garage. It clung like an abandoned jewel, light brown-gold on the Keeneland-green wall. It reminded me of one of my favorite writers; Lafcadio Hearn. Being retired and free to change my daily agenda to meet just about any passing whim, I moseyed to our library and burrowed into the Hearn pile.

Mr. Hearn lived a meandering life in the second half of the 19th century. He lived and wrote in Greece, France, England, New York, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Martinique, and Japan. He translated French writers for the New Orleans newspaper, reported crime for the Cincinnati paper, wrote travel articles for national periodicals, owned a bar in New Orleans, and lived his final years translating Japanese fairy tales and lecturing English literature in the Imperial University of Tokyo, Japan.

I find his writing to be challenging and pleasant. He writes with such intelligence about places and times of which I am utterly ignorant, but his prose makes him a precious guide.

In his SHADOWINGS (Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1901), Hearn has a section designated “Japanese Studies.” One of the three parts of the section is entitled “Sémi.” Hearn tells us “sémi” is the Japanese word for “cicada.” Much of the article explores various Japanese attitudes towards cicadas as reflected by haiku.

Hearn notes; “Often a sémi may be found in the act of singing beside its cast-off skin.”

Waré to waga

Kara ya tomurð –

Sémi no koë

(Methinks that sémi sits and sings by his former body, — chanting the funeral service over his dead self.)

That’s one opinion. That’s one cicada.

Here’s another view.

Yo no naka yo

Kaëru no hadaka,

Sémi no kinu!

(Naked as frogs and weak we enter this life of trouble; shedding our pomps we pass: so sémi quit their skins.)

Which cicada might each of us be; the one who chants over our dead selves, our past selves, the old days, the glories past? Or the cicada that sings; “Thank you!” to and then leaves behind those past experiences and goes on to fly.

Which cicada might each of us be?

Which cicada might our country be?

I think I’m ready to quit those skins.

Like William Shatner, I think I’d still like to try flying.

That’s worth singing loud about.

Saratoga Day-Dreaming

In the early 70’s I was working a lot of nights. Four to midnight was a regular shift for me. Thus, my days were a bit skewed. Lunch was important. Many days, it began my day. It got the juices flowing. It got the little gray cells humming.

I was living just off Euclid Avenue. Geography and lunch funneled me to the Saratoga Restaurant. If it hadn’t, fate probably would have.

The “Toga” sagged on the precise piece of High Street where that urban label became the more rural Tates Creek Pike. The front sagged. The neon sign sagged. The interior ceiling sagged. I snuggled in, usually with a book.

Chipped plastic-topped tables, free-standing and booth…harsh and flickering fluorescent lights…woogety chairs… two steps up to the bar with stools and more woogety chairs and tables…12-inch TV perched in the corner (black/white, non HD, squinting helps)…seriously heavy drink pours…

I know. It sounds too exotic to possibly be true, but as God is my witness…

Two or three times a week you could find me there (usually with a book) for the $1.79 lunch special.

  • Might be the Iceberg Wedge; one-fourth of a head of lettuce buried in an impenetrable lava flow of blue cheese.
  • A Chicken-Fried Steak; to this day I don’t know what that even means and am in no hurry to enlighten myself.
  • A Salisbury Steak; to date, none of the Salisbury’s on the planet have stepped up to claim this war crime.
  • Pot Roast; picture a lake of brown gravy (23,412 calories per ounce) over an Alps of mashed potatoes.

It was a different dietary time. Gluten had not yet been invented.

The service was impeccable and personified by Mona.

Mona was the mistress of efficiency. She could approach your table and release your plate two feet away from your table. It would glide with a spill-less thud precisely in front of your cringing napkin. I remember one Friday during Lent. One of the specials was fish, of course. It was served with the head still attached. The patron who ordered it objected to that arrangement. Mona picked up the plate and the customer’s butter knife, performed instant, violent radical surgery, and returned plate and knife to their original deployment. There were no more objections.

Most days, I was left alone to my lunch special and my book (I think I was reading a lot of Stephen King, Kazantzakis, Blatty, and Joseph Campbell at the time – whatta literary salad!). Other days would find me sharing a table with Charles Dickens (yes, that was his real name), professor of theatre, University of Kentucky. I learned a lot of theatre at lunch. Good for me. Unfortunately, it may have been at the expense of other theatre students at UK. I knew when Mona asked if Charles wanted another Manhattan before ordering lunch (there were two depleted glasses in front of him at the time), that his 1pm Directing Class was about to be discarded in favor of a mentoring/reminiscing session for yours truly. I’m not saying it was right, but…I learned a lot about the theatre, and heard some killer stories.

Yes, lunch is what I primarily remember about the Saratoga, but there were some remarkable Monday nights as well.

Monday Night Football was a major weekly event in season.

  • Arriving about seven to partake of the thinnest t-bone steak possible.
  • Matriculating up the two steps to the bar to join the Runyan-esque elite of the liquor industry as they attempted to out-drink and out-lie each other.
  • Watching my boss try to impress me by pounding double-Drambuie’s and ending up pounding the floor.
  • Ordering a Coke and being accused loudly of being a “Coke-sucker”.
  • Placing my weekly $5 bet on that night’s game.
  • Watching the blurry TV image (black/white, non HD, squinting helps – remember?) of the kick-off and about half of the first quarter in a room-full of blurry wannabe Nathan Detroits.

The bar and the restaurant closed at ten, so we were all off to our homes or what dubious adventures could be found in Lexington on a Monday night in the 70’s. I’m told you could be surprised,

Alas, I would be surprised.

But the “Toga”…

Tawdry…perhaps.

White, misogynistic, homophobic…oh yeah.

Dietetically healthy… <<snort>>

Enjoyable…hell…I was white, young and indestructible, straight, male, privileged……sure.

I snuggled in.

Would I like to return to those halcyon days?

No.

I’d like to think I could grow, but I know I’m not indestructible.

It felt OK at the time, but it was not for everyone, and that was the problem. I no longer wanna keep track of who it’s good for and who it’s not. That’s way too much score-keeping for me.

If that Saratoga reopened tomorrow…I’d be busy that day…whatever day it was.

Just Act the Hell Out of It

In the theatre, I have been blessed to work with inspiring directors. Many of them seemed to enter and re-enter my life at times when they could fulfill dual roles; stage director and off-stage mentor. Just as I could not have become the on-stage kings, fools, lawyers, doctors, and errant knights required, so I could not have become the geezer I am today (for better or worse) without their genuine care and, at times, curious advice.

Prof. Charles Dickens lurking on the right

Perhaps preeminent among them, if for no other reason than my bewildered youth at the time, was Charles Dickens.

Yes, that was his real name.

Charles was my adviser at UK. On the Tuesday before my first year at UK, during the “advising” session required before classes began on Monday, Charles filled out my roster of classes (my input was restricted to an awed and tiny “ok”), and informed me that my part-time job at the public library wouldn’t impede my freshman theatre activities since they didn’t cast freshmen anyway…but that I should attend and participate in the Sunday auditions of the season’s opening show (which he was directing) for the experience.

I responded with another tiny; “ok”.

Monday morning, at 9:00, I attended my first college class (Physics: 101 – we learned to bend water with a comb) and was cast in my first show (“Playboy of the Western World”). I was slack-jawed that September at my Physics classmates (“Is that real water?”), and dazzled by my sometimes shabby but always quick cast mates in rehearsal. My path was clear.

That was in the fall of 1969.

In the spring, Charles cast me in his elaborate production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”. By then, I was a complete “gym rat” in the theatre. Every day began and ended in the Fine Arts Building; the Guignol Theatre, the Laboratory Theatre (now the Briggs), the Green Room, the Scene Shop, the Costume Shop…even an occasional classroom. I lurked in every rehearsal I could find.

Angelo, on the right, acting the hell out of it

During “Measure”, Charles was deep into his Peter-Brook-THE-EMPTY-SPACE period. I may have learned half of what I know about the theatre listening to him coach actors in these rehearsals. One night, Bill Hayes, a nice actor and UK alumnus brought in by Charles to play “Angelo”, paused rehearsal to question the meaning of the line; “Let’s write ‘good angel’ on the Devil’s horn, tis not the Devil’s crest.” Charles sprang to the stage and took Bill’s script and they pondered…and pondered… Finally Charles handed the script back to Bill with the profound instruction; “Just act the hell out of it.”

Just act the hell out of it?

I had fallen in love with Shakespeare with “Measure for Measure”.

I knew what that line meant!

I could say that line!!

I could change people’s lives with that line!!!

Trump would never be elected if I said that line!!!!

I swore if I ever got the chance…

Well, of course, having sworn, I did, 23 years later.

Me acting the hell out of it in 1993

In 1993, the uber-smart Ave Lawyer cast me as “Angelo” in her production of “Measure”. This production featured a remarkable cast; Eric Johnson, Sidney Shaw, Holly Hazelwood Brady, Laurie Genet Preston, Jeff Sherr, Joe Gatton, Glenn Thompson, Donna Ison, Karen Czarnecki, Spencer Christiansen… WOW!

I had my chance.

I said my line.

I acted the hell out of it.

I changed people’s lives.

I saved the planet…from something.

And dammit, Trump was still elected.

I got up the next day and went to my day job.