My brother (Any sentence that begins this way puts me in mind of Bill Withers), knowing my preoccupation with English history and the Tudors in particular, tried to convince me to watch the miniseries The Tudors. His breathless description sent me urgently to Netflix, where I ordered up a batch of  The Tudors DVD back episodes.

Now, I am a huge squealing fan of gratuitous sex and violence, but this felt so forced and phony that I was embarrassed for the actors, and could not make the leap. It left out huge chunks of Henry VIII’s character (as well as huge chunks of Henry, who by the time he married Ann Boleyn was a porky pain in the ass, not a randy, heroine-skinny smoldering Armani model).

There was one thing this series got right: The Tudors – and all their kin – were scary, omnipotent mafioso-esque badass mofos who held grudges beyond the grave. French royals tended to be slyly Machiavellian, but English royals hauled you off, stuck you in a damp, fetid tower and beheaded you or burned you at the stake, or took your children and signed some paper that snatched away all your family’s property leaving you homeless and penniless. Royal pricks!

They came by their thuggishness honestly. By the time the houses of York and Lancaster had finished kicking each other’s asses all over the English countryside, they had left a bloody red gash in the fabric of history for the Tudors to fill.

My personal favorite York is George, Duke of Clarence who fought to overthrow his own brother (Edward IV, King of all the Righteous Foxy Badasses, who forgave George, positing himself as one of the exceptions to the Thuggish Royal Rule), and ended up being drown in a barrel of wine. Awesome.

No. Wait. My uber-favorite is Elizabeth Woodville, who was Edward IV’s queen consort. I love this badass bitch with all my black heart. She dodged rumors of witchcraft all her life, loved her famously philandering husband something crazy, and hated her husband’s family with a white-hot heat of a thousand suns. George – the wine-soaked treasonous bastard described above…? Legend has it that she kept his name written in blood on a piece of paper in a black enameled box, signifying that she wished his death. I love that kind of seething Technicolor hatred in my historical heroes.

I am a far more peaceful and resigned (read: lazy) person than that, though. Grudges are heavy and burdensome loads to carry around for very long. Except for one former co-worker. It’s been years and years and years. And I don’t exactly wish someone dead. But that black box idea is just my icy cold slice of revenge pie.


Words Escape Me

I’m always struck silent and dumb when I attempt to shove Thanksgiving into 20th Century Brit Lit context. Probably because Brits don’t celebrate our version of Thanksgiving. This year we included another family in our Thanksgiving dinner celebration. Kim, the mother, is a former Londoner, with a charming accent undiminished and unmellowed by her years living on the West Coast, married to a native Californian.

Hoping to impress her with my international savoir faire, I asked the man at the local European deli what a Brit would have for Thanksgiving dinner (He had an accent – I figured he would know) Blandly, he replied, “Since Thanksgiving is when you Yanks decided you’d rather starve on foreign shores than live in England a moment longer, I’m not sure there’s an answer to that question.”

I settled for starting with Stilton, crackers and smoked salmon. Fine.

But as the resulting marvelously relaxed dinner revealed, there is no national boundary on Thanks or Giving. Nor is there any minimum weight or yardstick. No wooden cutout indicating Must Be As Tall As This Line to Be Worthy Of Thanks.

So at the risk of sounding theatrically sentimental, I offer unrepentant thanks for The Big Things — Good health, a happy marriage, books, music, American citizenship – but also for The Small Things, the stuff of life, the things that render this life more livable, more colorful, more filled with light and imagery, more five-sense-ual. Again, here, I am struck dumb and silent by the enormity of The Small Things. Despite my love of words I am rendered wordless when Giving Thanks. So I am thankful to God that He can interpret the contents of my brimming, bursting heart.

The term “mentor” used to give me fits. In my ignorance I confused it with the insipid term “role model,” and my hackles would rise and I would protest that I would never be so derivative as to need or want to model myself at all, much less model myself after someone else.

When I was unemployed, I was firmly in Austen territory: A woman left to feeling that her worth is measured by everything but her ability to labor. Elinor Dashwood and Fanny Price.

Now that I am working again, I am planted firmly in Dickens territory. Nicholas Nickelby, David Copperfield, Pip. I’m surrounded by characters coworkers who tickle my imagination and make me laugh (in the most affectionate way possible) quietly behind my office door.

(I had a mentor once. I had a boss who made me understand that mentor meant so much more than “guide” or “teacher.” Mentor, in the case of Fred, meant motivator, believer, and companion. My very first business trip with him, we argued over the plot of the movie Sorcerer (William Friedkin fans!) and we each ordered two tall beers from the stewardess because we knew it would be forever before she came around to us again. A beer-drinking mentor – the very best kind.)

In the last few weeks I have been struggling to characterize the man who is my boss. The one man in an office of capable, driven, affable and endlessly kind women. Busy women. Accomplishing so much.

In trying to describe Ted to myself, I kept peregrinating around Charles Dickens. I would meander through the books and stories, briefly landing on Wilkins Micawber from David Copperfield, but rejecting that parallel; Micawber was kind and avuncular, but had failed in so many basic ways. Not Ted. No.

Mentally thumbing through all of Dickens, I failed to find the character I was looking for. But I knew he was there. I knew it . There. Just beyond my mental reach.  My boss is Dickensian in the very best possible way. Dignified but truly hilarious in a dry, self-effacing way. Paternal as the day is long. He cooks an elaborate and meticulous lunch for his staff each Tuesday, calling us all together to enjoy a leisurely meal, inviting us each to declare something for which we are thankful, each in our turn. Never too busy to spend more than a few minutes with each staffer, encouraging, inquiring, listening, sharing the details of his own agenda. I’m touched and overwhelmed by his kindness. The simplicity of his kindness.

But kindness alone does not a mentor make. Ted has invested some serious trust and faith in my abilities. As someone who has worked alone for many years, I am aware that this interaction and investment is a currency beyond, well, currency. Suddenly, I’m Nicholas Nickelby. This is awesome.

I come home from work. I start dinner. Still convivial and calm from my day at my new happy office, I sip a glass of Australian wine as I chop and sauté. I’m smiling. I think about my day. I’m happy. My children are infected by my mood as well. I think about Ted and my new coworkers. Ted takes simple gestures and makes then grand. It’s a feeling he has planted among his staff. It’s …It’s ..

It’s Fezziwig. It’s Mr. Fezziwig from A Christmas Carol.

As his apprentice Ebenezer Scrooge remarks, “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

That’s Ted. I am certain that in our association, Ted will teach me many things professionally. It’s inevitable. But I am also more than certain that Ted, by his benevolent example, has already begun to teach me the power of the simple, caring gesture. The power of faith invested.

Wait. Does this make me Ebenezer Scrooge?

I wondered about the term Victorian. I wonder why it is casually thrown around to mean “uptight” and “repressed.”  How true can this really be? Could Victoria, who was nicknamed The Grandmother of Europe have been such a constrict on the minds, hearts and behavior of her people? If so, why would they put up with it for so long?

To find my answers I turned not to a text book or a reliable biographer (too predictable) but to a BBC miniseries called Victoria and Albert. I know! How esoteric a title is that?

I don’t know what I expected. I think I expected to be bored.

Victoria’s young life was tightly controlled by a domineering mother and by her tentative role in the royal hierarchy.

OK, so far, I’m a little bored. But this is England’s Victorian Era. I hardly expected intrigues and affairs a la randy Charles II.

But then Victoria meets her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Basically, he’s German. She thinks he’s dull. And yeah, he does have that overly flouncy look that all men seemed to have in the 19th Century. But he sort of grew on me. He’s polite, but has a low-level pissed-off-ed-ness that’s intriguing. He must have grown on Victoria too, because she married him. Actually, she proposed. I think because she outranked him.  Bummer. I’m not sure I could rise to that challenge. How Victorian of me. See? It doesn’t make sense. She’s 16 and she works up the nerve to propose to her foxy royal cousin. That’s not exactly uptight.

So they get married and get right down to business. Right away he realizes that he’s outranked in the household, in the family and in the kingdom. And this is a man who is no shrinking violet, no slouch in the brains department and has been raised in a seriously paternal culture. The whole second-in-command thing did not sit well with this guy.

He stalks down halls. He glowers. He lets off steam on symbolically virile black stallions. He raises his voice. He slams doors. He runs his hands through his hair distractedly.

I’m not bored anymore. No. Not at all.

He fires the domineering housekeeper (poor Diana Rigg). He installs himself as Mr. I-Run-The-Household-Man. With stereotypical German efficiency he gets that huge castle running like a VW. A restored one. Custom paint job. Like….mebee…1963 Bug. Forest Green.  (Sigh) Just like that.

He is not officially allowed to help Victoria run the country. Not yet, anyway. But she gets to the point where his influence holds swoon, er  sway. He’s a man of the people. Uncomfortably aware that the Royal Family’s reputation had disintegrated in the previous generations, he is determined to raise his family’s profile as an example to the common man.  He does all this in perfectly tailored royal outfits. Cutaway coats. Just…yeah.

I like this guy. This Albert is a simmering pot of righteous, royal He-Man. And he loves Christmas! He brought the first Christmas tree to Great Britain! Swoon! I’m not bored!

The Great Exhibition – that was Albert’s brainchild. Overhaul of the royal finances (those spendthrift royals!) – Albert again.  Modernization of university curricula – Albert! Did I mention Christmas trees? Albert. Albert. Albert.

When he dies at the age of 42, his wife goes into mourning for years. Get that: The Queen of England does not appear in public for years. She wears black for the rest of her life. For Albert. In honor of Albert.

This Queen? This marriage is the root of the throwaway term that has come to mean “repressed and uptight?” Please. We need to re-think this. Albert had it going on. He’s like a royal superhero but without the embarrassing outfit. More (and more accurate) research is needed to get to the root of this word and its misapplication. At the very least we need to add a term that acknowledges Albert’s hotness. Albertian. I like it. As in, My Albertian husband insists I not cook tonight and is instead taking me out for dinner a deux. Swoon indeed.

Wentworth: Cheers, old man.

Brandon: Ah. Yes. Bottoms up, old chap. Tell me again…why are we sitting in a tavern tipping back these…what did you call them?

Wentworth: Martinis. Italian, apparently.

Brandon: Remarkable. They’re really very good, you know. I think I’d like it better if it was made with gin, but on the whole, they are …

Wentworth: …remarkable. Yes. I think we’re sitting here, just basically getting polluted because we’re both veterans of Britannia’s armed forces and we’re drinking to our shared commitment to England’s… Oh, just…sod it all.

Brandon: We’re here because of women.

Wentworth: Women. How to handle a woman?

Brandon: Hold up there, that’s Richard Burton’s line from Camelot. We’re from Austen. Jane Austen. I hate that bitch.

Wentworth: She’s really written us into fits, hasn’t she? Done us a nasty turn. Look at you – a Colonel with His Majesty’s Finest – trailing behind some child of 17, hoping for crumbs from her table.

Brandon: Beautiful. My Marianne is a vision. Have you seen her, man? She’s perfection. Have you heard her sing? Play the pianoforte? Seraphic.

Wentworth: I’m sure. And here I sit. Worked my way through His Majesty’s Navy. In command of my own ship. Wealthier than I ever thought possible. Ladies – lovely ones – crawling all over me. I could have my pick! But no. I can’t seem to exorcise the spinsterish Anne Elliot, of all people, from my brain. She threw me over years ago. How big a mooncalf am I?

Brandon: What’s a mooncalf?

Wentworth: A simpleton! A tomfool! A dunderhead!

Brandon: Wow. We English certainly employ odd phraseology. Can we blame Jane Austen for that, as well?

Wentworth: I think we can! I insist we do! Let’s examine this rationally for a moment: You and I are – let’s face it man – two of the most admired male literary figures in the English language. We’re stalwart lads! Men of our word! Upright and All right! We wore uniforms and served nobly. We don’t dally with shady ladies…

Brandon: Are we counting all the time I spent in the Indies?

Wentworth: Ah, no. I don’t think we need to count that, nor my first two years at sea. What say you, eh?

Brandon: Agreed. But all that aside, we are top of the male-literary-hero heap. But this Austen woman has us reduced to piles of rubble, stammering and swooning over a couple of dames. That’s it. I demand a do-over.

Wentworth: O they already did that.

Brandon: Did what?

Wentworth: A do over. They did us both over. Haven’t you seen it? PBS remade Austen’s Sense & Sensibility as well as Persuasion. You really need to keep up with pop culture, Brandon.

Brandon: They did me over? How did it go? How did I fare? Do I still get the girl? MY girl? They did not change that, right? Say they didn’t. Please.

Wentworth: Get a hold of yourself, man. Yes. You still get the girl. But you’re different. She’s different. Willoughby’s still total dick, but he’s shorter and more effeminate.

Brandon: Good. He’s an ass. But Marianne is still…she’s still…

Wentworth: Put it this way, she’s no Kate Winslet, that’s for sure. But then you’re no Alan Rickman. You’re that flaccid officer fellow from that children’s movie about the Loch Ness Monster? Remember?

Brandon: NO! I need to be Alan Rickman. I insist I am Alan Rickman. I have the bittersweet chocolate voice, the sensitive yet masculine expression. The quiet strength. The even temper. The…damnit! I want my Alan Rickman quiet strength! I want my deep, bedroomy, sexy voice!

Wentworth: Yes, they kind of messed with your whole shtick. I fared a bit better, but not really. We all know I need to be Ciaran Hinds. I need that stentorian tone. The Mr. Bolt Upright posture. The smoldering looks. Right? Am I right?

Brandon: …I …I can’t believe this….

Wentworth: Buck up man. As I was saying…they took away all my tall-dark-and-Ciaran-Hinds stuff and replaced it with a vaguely pretty face and a wistful expression. Then they took all the really lusty chemistry I had with Amanda Root and replaced it with puppyish longing tinged with repressed sexual frustration. It’s painful. I’m considering pressing charges. Defamation of character.  Repressed. As if.

Brandon: What about all the fangirls? They’ve moved on, haven’t they?

Wentworth: No! You really do need to start reading all those romancy-swoony Austen web sites. It’s gotten political. There are vociferous fans defending us. It’s like a duel, but among cat ladies and lit nerds.

Brandon: Cat ladies and lit nerds? I really do need another one of these Italian drinks.

Wentworth: Martinis.

Brandon: Or go back into the army…

Wentworth: Hang in there, the second Napoleonic War is about to begin. Shall we have another and drink to His Majesty?

Unsolvable Problems

When I started all this, I had firmly lodged in my head the idea that 19th Century Brit Lit and its BBC-type movie interpretations could cure any problem of modern life. Well, MY limited version of modern life. Which means I went into this convinced that Austen, Hardy, Trollope, and company could solve everything but gang violence, Columbian drug cartels, and futile searches for WMDs.

It’s been awhile since I was wrong. But I was wrong. While the Brit Lit Cure is nearly miraculous in its ability to bring perspective, humor, empathy and common-sense wisdom to most ailments, it fails almost comically when applied to a select few others.

  • A hangover

There are some drinkers in Austen. Mr. Hurst comes immediately to mind. Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Trollope — Lots of drinkers. But these characters are archetypal wastrels. They are career ne’r-do-wells. Lifelong party hounds and Lost-Weekenders. And while there is a lot of drinking of wine and ale at all hours of the day and by all characters for any old excuse (Remember Darcy offering Elizabeth a glass of wine the morning that she received anxious news from home?), no one ever seems worse for the wear. No vertical naps following a drinky luncheon. No sleeping in because the dinner party the night before went off the hook. And no one ever has to worry about police checkpoints for drunk drivers. These people had carriages. And drivers. And Highway Patrol wasn’t invented yet. Neither was Aleve. I just plain can’t relate at all.

  • My socially awkward son’s dearth of friends in school.

My son is smart, cool, funny, kind, well read, a fast runner, great swimmer, budding surfer, fair rock climber and seasoned backpacker. He’s also frighteningly handsome.  But he has no real friends in school. Girls give him the fits. I can’t wait till all these twerpy little snots figure out what a great kid he is and start calling the house asking to talk to him. Then they’ll find out that karma’s a bitch and so am I. 19th Century British Literature is remarkably devoid of socially awkward kids with potentially bitchy, bitter moms. Except Lady Catherine de Bourgh. I’d like to forget I just drew that parallel. I hate me.

  • A crippling heatwave

They’re all wearing 90 percent too much clothing in these books. London in the middle of summer cannot be any more pleasant than the 10-day Southern California heatwave I just lived through. No one in these books complains about the heat. No one has a pool. When they go to the beach (the seaside), they wear 120 percent too much clothing. It’s like they have no sense of self preservation.

  • Men who wear too much cologne

This is a real problem for me, and I can find no help at all in these books. Maybe the problem back then was a lack of running water and an egregious lack of regular bathing. Maybe they were all inured to the reek of their fellow man. But why are men in this current day so devoted to smelling like the first floor of Nordstrom? It’s really effeminate (not that there’s anything wrong with that), which, judging from the marketing campaigns, is definitely not the goal. Maybe it’s me. I can’t be the only one who holds her breath in an elevator when a man gets in (most of the time). Can I?

Last year’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall has nothing to do with 19th Century Brit Lit or any BBC-esque adaptation of the aforementioned. Except, by a stretch, in that maybe that film’s Russell Brand is my titular casting choice if ever the BBC produces a biography of Oscar Wilde. Directed by Terry Gilliam.

With that tenuous link established, the groundwork has now been laid for a foray into Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s pathetic protagonist Peter, and how this silly little movie has become my most recent talisman in my quest to solve my life.

I’m Peter. I wake up and the first thing that pops into my head is Peter’s pathetic autobiographical song: “Peter you suck. Peter you suck. Peter your music is fucking terrible. Peter you suck, Peter you suck. You don’t do anything of value. Peter you suck. Go write some music. But instead you sit and write these bullshit songs. It’s so self-loathing. Go see a psychiatrist. I hate the psychiatrist. Go see one anyway.”

Being unemployed sucks one’s ego dry. Ego vampire. My anemic little ego is a husk of its formerly vibrant, overblown self. It is not that I loved my job or even my line of work so very much. In fact, I frequently felt that my line of work was vapid, manipulative and self-absorbed. But it was lucrative and I was good at it. Am good at it. Am I still good at it? How would I know?

My husband sits me down and hits me with The Talk. The Talk that essentially is the stake in the heart of my ego. You have so much talent. Why are you not living up to your potential? Has he been reincarnated as my high school counselor? My husband is the reanimated corpse of Mr. Wolcott.

I want to ask him what I wanted to ask Mr. Wolcott. How the hell would you even know? How would you know what my potential is? Why do I have to live up to my potential when so many other people do not? How would you even know if I have any talent at all.? Maybe I am a talentless, egomaniacal hack. Maybe I suck. Maybe I suck. Maybe my writing is fucking terrible. Maybe I suck. Maybe I suck. Maybe I don’t write anything of value.

Poor Peter. Poor me. I’m a cliché. I’m a self-loathing, doubt-riddled cliché. I thought I had escaped Mr. Wolcott and all his expectations when I left high school. Apparently I married him.

Peter’s friends keep urging him to do something creative, to work on his Dracula Musical. I love that: His Dracula Musical. Peter’s Dracula Musical becomes the vessel for all his energy, his creativity, his newly emerged life force. It becomes his raison d’etre.

Bram Stoker was the business manager for the Lyceum Theater when he wrote Dracula, so he had a paying gig while he penned his particular Dracula Musical. Shouldn’t I have that paying gig while I work on mine? Was he riddled with doubt and saddled with a mummified ego, as I am?

Screw Bram Stoker. I need to work on my Dracula Musical. I don’t exactly know quite what it is or what shape it will take. I don’t even know if I suck or if my writing is fucking terrible or if I can write anything of value.

I watched the end of Forgetting Sarah Marshall 5 times (thanks, Youtube). Just the ending. The Dracula Musical. That contagious, ebullient mood of victory and of  inner demons vanquished.  The muppets. The potential realized. I want that Dracula Musical ending.