Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Mitfords

The Mitfords still aren't very famous in America despite making comparable famous American aristocracy like the Kennedys seem irretrievably boring.

It occurred to me today that I need to re-read Nancy Mitford's library of writings because, despite holding distinct impressions of her effortless wit, which often comes off as an afterthought, I've completely forgotten what The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate were about.

I do recall that her father, David Mitford, is hysterically preserved in both books, the Pursuit most distinctly (I think), in which he - a brusque, outdoorsy, irritable man - chafes at the dinner conversation of a visiting family member who wants to discuss books.  

“My dear Lady Kroesig, I have only read one book in my life, and that is ‘White Fang.’ It’s so frightfully good I’ve never bothered to read another.”

In an interview, Mitford sister Deborah confirmed the truth of that line, that as an adult, their father really had only read White Fang and was convinced that no other book could live up to it.  Concerned by this, their mother picked another book for him to read, which was Tess of the d'Urbervilles.  When he started to cry during the sad parts, his wife said, "Don't cry, darling, it's only a story."  Furious, David stood up and shouted, "Do you mean to say the damn fellow made it up!?"

The Mitford sisters were all beautiful, spectacularly intelligent and abnormally willful individuals, each of whom did something entirely distinct with her life except sweet Debo and Pam, who just got married.  All born in the beginning of the 20th century, they were part of an upper-class ("U") British family who spent most of their time living in their expansive country house, where the girls were not formally educated, because their mother didn't believe in it.

My favorite sister was Jessica "Decca" Mitford, who married a radical communist in the 1930s and quickly escaped to America to be a writer and journalist of moderate fame.  Her closest-in-age sister, Unity, with whom she shared a rather twinsy relationship, became strangely enthralled with fascism and traveled to Germany where she developed a friendship and one-sided love affair with Adolph Hitler, over which she eventually attempted suicide twice.  Their older sister Diana, incredibly beautiful and referred to by Hitler as the standard of Aryan beauty (don't quote that, but along those lines) married Oswald Mosley, the head of the British Union of Fascists.  Nancy carried on a series of affairs between enjoying financial and critical success for her writing.  Debo became a duchess and is still alive and in her 90s!  Pam farmed in rural quietude.

Fans of the arts of this era, "the time between the wars," will know the Mitfords as their stories are so closely intertwined with other noted British names of the day, like Cecil Beaton, Evelyn Waugh, the Churchills, and almost everyone who was anyone at the time.

I thought I read that one of the girls was going to marry Joe Kennedy, Jr., the first Kennedy heir and the one Joe Kennedy, Sr had actually intended for the role JFK took, but I can't find that anywhere, so it must just be a rumor.  

The Unity thing was so bizarre, I feel that there was some kind of mental abnormality with her, so singleminded and strange were her behaviors, although it is worth noting that this was the early 1930s, a time in which Hitler was widely approved of in the British upperclass, and in which antisemitism was so commonplace in the society in which Unity had grown up that it tended to offend only the lefty rebels (her sisters Decca and Nancy included).  She learned German by herself and sought Hitler out like a magazine celebrity, and eventually achieved some level of friendship with him in which he did favors for her, like find her luxe lodging in Berlin near him (evicting the prior Jewish tenant), and take her around with his entourage.  She never got as close as she wanted, and when England and Germany went to war, she couldn't bear having to choose between her home and adopted countries, so she went to the Tiergarten in Berlin and shot herself in the head.  She survived, and was immediately conveyed home to her family.  During that trip, she tried again to kill herself by swallowing a small Nazi medal Hitler had given to her.  Really, if someone wants to die badly enough that they re-try it as soon as they gain consciousness after the first attempt, then maybe you should just let them go.  The brain trauma from the gunshot wound caused Unity to spend the rest of her days in a "simple" mental state, and she died a decade later, the sad and ghoulish ward of her mother.

Unity and Decca had been extremely close as children and teenagers, going so far as to invent their own language, called "boudledidge" (told you I was a fan).  It is ironic that they immediately split apart in the most extreme ideological ways possible as soon as they were old enough to leave home.  Jessica remained a radical leftist for the rest of her life, gaining some fame later on by writing an expose on the American funeral industry called "The American Way of Death".  That was the 1960s, but it was revised and re-released with updates in the late 90s after her death.  I recommend reading it, and I guarantee that, upon doing so, you will instantly call your significant other or next of kin and say, "Write this down: no embalming - burn me - put me in a cardboard takeout box - do whatever you want with it.  But for christ's sake, no mortuary."  The commercialized funerary practices are offensive on all possible levels.  Disgusting and absurd debasement of bodies (painting teeth with clear nail polish and pumping faces full of dye to look "lifelike"), outrageously priced, predatory maneuvers made on people stripped of their reason by grief, etc.  Making a body look like a mannequin and then formally viewing it has always seemed absolutely insane to me.  I know what they looked like!  Why burn this image into my brain?  I remained glued to a pew during my grandmother's viewing, only approaching the casket after a tight-lipped whispered argument when my uncle approached my cousin and I and told us to get our asses up there and view her like everyone else had.  We didn't want to go up.  When we finally did, I turned away instantly.  There she was in a familiar dress, with pictures and mementos placed around her like a dead pharaoh, and glossy pink nail polish on her fingers.  That was the most vulgar to me.  She never wore pink nail polish and I was affronted as one can only be in grief that the mortuary would dare to assume she liked that color.

Decca's stories of being reviled by morticians across the country are very amusing - apparently, they referred to her by first name only in one of their industry papers.  "Jessica has done another interview with..."  Wrecking their grim party.  After her book came out, the cremation rate nearly tripled.

Decca's first husband, Esmond Romilly (Churchill's nephew), had been killed in the war in 1941, leaving her alone with a baby in a foreign country in wartime.  She took on a variety of meager jobs out of necessity, eventually ending up in journalism, and later married ACLU lawyer Bob Treuhaft.  They were both members of the Communist Party until the late 1950s.  Decca was called before the House of Un-American Activities, from which she was dismissed in frustration after refusing to answer questions.  She said she took up writing because she was tired of being fired from jobs for being a Communist.  No one can bar you from writing for a living if you can do it.

I was thrilled recently to find this video in which she is interviewed by Christopher Hitchens in the late 80s.  My two favorites!!!!!!

Really starts at about 5:00.  Worth listening to for both of them, but Jessica is hilarious and charming as hell, as is Hitch's obvious deference to her.

But since this post was inspired by my rediscovery of Nancy Mitford, here is a quote of hers that I recently heard for the first time and which made me laugh out loud.  Complaining of having to pretend to be thrilled by the births of babies, Nancy remarks that it's hard to coo at a newborn because they tend to look "...Like a howling orange in a fright wig."  Perfect, damn it.  

Early days at home in Oxfordshire




Unity Valkyrie - seriously, who gives their infant daughter the middle name of Valkyrie?  Cool, though.

Unity with her fucking boyfriend

Friday, April 25, 2014

Comments of note

"If you could go back in time and painlessly cull somebody with a high velocity rifle bullet, it would be Lord Alfred Douglas."  Will Self

I couldn't possibly agree more, except about the painless part.  He's more gracious than I am.

Although Oscar Wilde's life seems as though it cannot have been true, and is rather a fanciful and tragic history translated from a series of found paintings, it is still one of the saddest things I know.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


I love old man garages.  They are inevitably musty, eclectic, and full of treasures.  They are comfortable places for me, probably because I spent so much time in them as a kid.  

My brother and I visited my dad's house today.  I don't get over there very often, but every time I do, I'm struck by how funny and unusual his tastes and style are.  When I was a kid, it was normal to live in a house where the wall art was all antique guns and photos of classic cars he had owned at various times of his life.  There were by far more sentimental car photos than photos of people on the walls.

I learned to drive in the red '55 Ford.  I remember lamenting in the church parking lot we practiced in that the truck was so hard to handle.  "No power steering!" he cried.

The Hulk mask.  I can't believe he still has it.  I was so afraid of it as a small child.  Some of my earliest memories involve my dad wearing the mask, lunging out from behind doors with a growl to scare my mother.  She never thought it was funny.  He loved to scare her.  Later, after they were divorced, he gave me some giant rubber cockroaches and told me to place one in a cabinet in our kitchen for her to find.

This fucking dog.  He's one half of a set of massive matching pitbulls who ensure that the house, an excellent target for thieves, goes unmolested.  He's 110 lbs, the size of a pony, and has the loudest, deepest bark I have ever heard.  He's easily two or three times the size of a traditional pitbull, intentionally bred that way, possibly for fighting or for the sheer terror-value.  My dad's girlfriend took him in as a puppy from a shady acquaintance.  He is quite friendly, but his size and strength are a constant reminder that he is totally capable of killing you - quickly, and painfully.

Growing up, I spent a lot of Saturday nights playing alone in man garages while my dad and his friends hung out, drank, and talked all night.  We would visit his friend Big Don, whose garage was particularly epic, as he was not only a car & motorcycle guy, but a historian and outdoorsman.  There were animal heads, Civil War artifacts, guns, knives, bikes, car parts, everywhere.  They were all amateur bodybuilders, so each garage was also a miniature gym.  None of the guys had kids my age, and I was expected to entertain myself without being a pest.  So I would sit on a bench and flip through cabinet card photos, or peck out tunes on the hundred year old piano he had salvaged from the nunnery at the local Catholic church, or sit at the massive wood slab that was their kitchen table, playing with loose bullets that were rolling around or stacking playing cards into houses.  Once, I found a coffee can with severed deer legs sticking out of it, the butchered ends salted.  This didn't meet my approval.  I also recall finding a huge tortoise shell that still stank of bits of flesh that had been missed.  Big Don's house was totally fascinating.

My dad's garage was good too.  Exploring always felt risky because you never knew when you'd come upon the unfortunate discovery of and unwanted insect.  His garage was small, detached from the house and custom built by the house's first owner, who had had similar tastes.  Some of his possessions had been left behind, abandoned by family after he died.  Unlike Don's garage, ours was dark, and as much as I liked it, with the warped work table, the ancient pencil sharpener mounted to the wall that I'd use when doing homework, and the comforting smells of old wood and years of dirt, it was spooky and unwelcoming.  I didn't tend to linger in there.

I lived in that house alone after I turned 18.  My dad had moved in with his girlfriend, and rather than deal with renting it, he let me live there as long as I paid the utilities.  I had a roommate at first, my middle school best friend, but eventually had to kick her out for her intolerable habits and inability to pay the minimal costs of living there.

Once the house was mine alone, I didn't go in the garage much.  The mood was different after my dad took his things out.  I would work on my various projects in there, painting the furniture I'd drag home from thrift stores, but I really didn't like to hang out.  It didn't feel safe.  The whole house felt creepy and unpredictable once my dad had gone, and I started to adopt weird behaviors in there to adapt to the dark mood.  I'd avoid entering certain rooms or parts of the house after dark.  This was easy, as it was a long and rambling ranch style, so I could stay well away from the east side of the house if I wanted to.  If I stayed up late at night, I'd often become very uncomfortable around midnight or 1 am, sometimes to the point that I would leave the house and stay the night with my boyfriend instead.

After I finally moved out, my dad spent some time prepping it for renters.  I stopped by to see the progress one day and he called me into the garage.  The large door was open, letting in the breeze and light of spring in Phoenix.  I had known for years that there had been a suicide in the house, but I never knew the details.  I thought no one did.  My dad pointed to the unfinished beams of the ceiling and said, "Ever notice that stain?"  I said no.  I guess I had never looked up.  The stain was more of a splatter of black blotches on the beams.  My dad explained that Vern, the old man and original owner of the house next door, had told him the details of the suicide years ago, and took him into the garage to show him.  The splatter was the final evidence of that suicide, leftover blood and brains that had been overlooked by whomever had had the unsavory task of cleaning the poor woman up.  I guess they hadn't looked up either.  She had done it in there to prevent messing up the house.  My dad had never told me because he didn't want me to be afraid. 

That might've been why our garage wasn't as cheery as others I've known.

Still, they are magic places and I'm always delighted when I visit people's houses and find that they have one, too - a crusty, dirty space full of weird junk.  Not everyone does this, of course - curate an unrefined ever-evolving museum of personal tastes and pasts.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Fragile

I used to think I was an insecure person.  I (secretly) adopted this errant self-description because I often questioned myself, and when I made mistakes, I dwelt on them at length in a self-abusing way.  Now I have realized that I am merely self-critical and probably too focused on myself in general.

Insecurity is so much worse.  I've been able to study it at length in my working career, and unfortunately have a close vantage on a particularly active specimen at work.  Their behaviors are all the same, and are so quickly recognizable: breathless, child-like bragging about regular shit, or untrue shit; constantly feeling threatened by trifling or non-existent "conflict," assuming everyone is after something they have, and generally being fearful, uncharitable bastards who never take accountability because they don't have the confidence to navigate potentially difficult situations.  I mean...right?

I went to a professional development session at a local foundation recently and ended up sitting next to an exec from another nonprofit.  She was acting just like our resident jerk does such that I felt helplessly bookended by these batshit assholes who can't keep their mouths shut because they have to bleat constantly about their extensive knowledge of everything.  What they don't realize is that their bragging sounds like a distress signal: No one respects me!  I am unsure of my abilities!  I don't feel important enough!  No one held me as a baby!  Save it for your husband, lady; it's grotesque in public.

I've got plenty of sympathy or patience for flawed people, but it dissipates completely when they couch their problems in a pantomime of superiority.  This act tends to go on forever because they have no idea how obvious they are, and no one around them wants to engage in a confrontation that feels cruel when you realize how pitiful and emotionally fragmented someone must be to act so consistently foolish.

It's disturbing when people take their routine problems and turn them into some sort of pathology.  I say pathology because the behavior is so deeply ingrained that it's sometimes impossible to see past it or see that it is a behavior at all.  Perhaps these people are so un-introspective that they can't see an outside perspective of themselves, and so unintuitive that they don't see the way other people react to them.  If people leave the room as soon as you enter, take heed.  If people immediately disengage when you start talking, there is a reason.

The most ironic part of this is that these people are so obsessed with their ranking in life and so fixated on bossing other people around that they don't realize how incompetent and wrong they often are, because they don't see themselves at all.  If you're going to behave in an imperious way, you had better be right ALL THE TIME.  Instead, at least with my work example, she's always wrong because she would rather have an answer every time than answer only when she knows she's right.  Probably fanning the flames of her crazy, I'm forced to question her and follow up like she is my child: Did you do the thing I asked you to do?  Why didn't you do it?  When do you plan to?  How about you do it right now while I watch you, because you can't be trusted.  I don't want to have to do this with someone twice my age. 

The woman at the session the other day displayed other typical actions that I find to be obnoxious, such as agreeing with everything a superior or speaker says, even when they contradict themselves mid-sentence, or before they've had a chance to make their point.  Or trying to finish the sentences of a speaker to show the people around her that she has a preternatural awareness of whatever is being discussed.  When she inevitably finished sentences incorrectly, even when wildly inaccurate about statistics, she didn't let it get her down.  She just kept on hysterically nodding her head and mumbling underneath the conversation.  Naturally this distracted me, as I had to start thinking about all of the snarky things I'd like to say to her.

What these self-obsessed idiots never realize is that life is so much easier when you admit that you probably have no goddamned idea what is going to happen, and when you admit your mistakes.  I have no respect for or trust in any person who will not admit fault when they have made a mistake.  I find it to be disturbing and unnerving when people lie and build ridiculous barricades, anything to not be wrong in the open.  Not only do I write them off immediately, but I become inordinately offended that they actually think they may be tricking me with their dog-ate-homework excuses.  Admitting mistakes is so freeing and preserves your credibility with your peers.  How have these grown ass people gotten this far in life without realizing that?

So anyway, I have plenty of opinions and observations, but as yet I still have absolutely no idea how to deal with these people, because they are both aggressive and incredibly fragile at the same time.  In most cases, I see this blustering, sometimes cocksure behavior as a flimsy covering for a deeply flawed, confused, emotionally stunted person who has probably suffered some emotional trauma and will probably never improve.  You know, not to infer too much or anything.  But I assume that they are so poorly constructed psychologically that an open, plainly spoken confrontation of their behavior might cause a scene not worth dealing with.  Unfortunately, it's really hard for me to ignore annoying things.

Friday, April 4, 2014


You won't get this unless you've seen the ending of Shane, the classic 50s western, but you probably have.  I laughed.  Kate Beaton is the best.

Click through to see it in a normal size.