RIP Olivia deHavilland

Olivia deHavilland passed away over the weekend.  At age 104, she was officially the eldest “celebrity crush” I’ve ever had.

Looking back, I probably first saw her in Airport ’77, a lame film even by the low standards of 70s disaster flicks.  As the middle-aged “Worried Passenger #28” or whatever, she made far less of an impression on 12-year-old me than a drowned Christopher Lee floating past the window of a sunken 747.  It wasn’t until the 90s that I “discovered” Olivia in all her youthful glory, opposite Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, and THAT made an impression.  It’s a cliche to say a performer “lights up the screen,” but in her case it fit, as there was a genuine luminance to her features and perfomance, all the more remarkable given she was only 19 years old at the time.

If Flynn was, on screen anyway, the perfect hero — dashing, honorable, courageous, a leader of men, then Olivia was his ideal match: beautiful, elegant, virtuous and in her own, less flashy way, heroic as well.  Their chemistry was undeniable; whether in medievel Sherwood, 1700s Jamaica or 1800s Dodge City, they were drawn together as if reincarnated through the ages to continue a love affair that stretched over multiple lives.  It was only in 20th Century real life they couldn’t make it work, although Flynn at least seemed to wish it.

Of course, Olivia would go onto much bigger and better things than playing “The Girlfriend,” winning two Academy Awards (for whatever that’s worth),  no thanks to studio boss Jack Warner, who would’ve been happy to keep her in period epics and romantic comedies as “the girl” forever, if he could.  Loaned out to MGM for Gone With The Wind, she finally had a chance to show greater range, and like everyone else associated with that film achieved a level of immortality.  Even now, she may be best remembered as “the last surviving star of Gone With The Wind,” which is ironic as I find her “Melanie” character as maddeningly “goody-goody” as Scarlett O’Hara was insufferably rotten.  Scarlett may have been conniving and selfish, but at least she was a survivor.  Melanie, in comparison, was too sweet and pure and angelic to survive the harsh realities of Earth.

The real Olivia was made of sterner stuff, outliving all her peers from the Golden Age of Hollywood (more than twice as long as Flynn!) and going toe-to-toe with Jack Warner — a guy who’d successfully shoved around the likes of Jimmy Cagney and Bette Davis — to win her freedom from an unreasonable contract, in the process driving a stake through the studio system and empowering generations of performers to act as free agents.  At 103, she was in the news again, suing a production company for defamation and striking a blow, in her way, for all her old comrades who are “fair game” for any scriptwriter to slander now that they’ve passed on.  

So yeah, I know Olivia was formidable, and super-competent, and feisty to the end.  But I confess I’ll always love her best as “the girlfriend,” provided the “boyfriend” was Flynn.  Over his career, Errol was paired with fine leading ladies like Anne Sheridan, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Alexis Smith, but for most of us, there was Olivia and then there was everyone else.  When Errol and Olivia were on screen together, you believed they were meant for each other, and when Errol went into battle, you believed Olivia was the woman he’d risk everything for.

In fact, my favorite on-screen moment between the two comes in a pre-battle scene in They Died With Their Boots On.  Technically an “action picture” (which does have great action scenes) and a “bio-pic” (which isn’t even remotely close to historically accurate), in the end what holds the film together is the romance between George and Libby Custer, from their first meeting at West Point through a humorous courtship and a loving, sometimes difficult marriage to their final, heartbreaking separation on the eve of the Little Big Horn.  This was the last of Errol and Olivia’s eight films together, as Olivia was anxious to move on to other things.  In a weird nexus of fact and fiction, their characters’ goodbye scene was the last scene the stars ever filmed together, and it’s hard not to read extra layers into it: it was “meta” before “meta” was a thing.

Errol as Custer puts on a brave face as he heads out on a mission he knows he’ll never return from, while Olivia as Libby plays the role of dutiful wife to the end, equally certain of what’s ahead but knowing her husband needs her to be brave one last time.  It’s a masterful performance of a great script, where what’s not said is as important as what is.  Again, it has a “meta” feel to it, as the stars say goodbye to each other through scripted lines, speaking as other people.  Legend has it that even decades later, Olivia had to excuse herself from a screening of the film as this scene approached, unable to watch it without breaking down.  I can sympathize; I never get through it with a dry eye, either.

104 years is a great run, but there are certain folks you dread to read that last headline about, even though all logic tells you it’s coming.   There was a certain comfort knowing that somewhere out there (usually France) was a living link to the Golden Age of film, the girl who inspired heroes to great deeds and the woman who struck bold blows, herself.  Plus, it was an odd kind of fun, crushing on a centenarian.  Godspeed, Dame Olivia, and thanks.  

Goodbye June

Aaaannd another month’s gone by.  Somehow you’d think time would pass more slowly in lockdown, but if anything, it feels like it’s super up. When every day is essentially the same, they all pass in a blur.

There have been a few changes from last month, anyway.  The country turned upside down with protests over police violence and Richmond is down a few Confederate monuments with more likely on their way out soon.  Like most folks, I’m on board with the peaceful protests, but not with the violence and vandalism that’s too often gone with it.  Much of the latter seems to be the work of individuals or groups that have nothing to do with Black Lives Matter or any other legitimate movement; they’re just hooligans and agitators who’ve latched onto an excuse to wage destruction under the smoke screen of the protests.  As far as Richmond’s Confederate-era statues are concerned, I believe they were on the way out, anyway, and I won’t miss them.  But removing them this way only prevents any opportunity at closure or resolution in the community, slow as that process was moving.  I don’t know how long it would have taken to get us to the point where they could have been removed with something close to community consensus, but done this way, it’ll just be another point of contention for those folks who valued them; they’ll always be something that was “taken away,” something else to resent and hold a grudge about for another generation.  La plus ça change.

Last week, I went back to campus to set up for a special event, and had halfway intended to drive past the statues or their former sites to see things for myself, but by the time I was done setting up, I was just ready to go home.  Double-masked as I was, in 90 degree heat, it was all I could do to stay vertical after pushing a cart for four blocks. Campus was eerily empty, the office deserted.  I saw a few people walking around, about half of them with masks, but even those with masks mostly kept them hanging loosely around their necks and only raised them to their face if they felt they were getting too close to someone.  Of course touching a mask all the time is almost as bad as not wearing it at all.  In general, Virginia’s done a lousy job of complying with, first, the stay at home orders and now, wearing masks.  Our numbers aren’t (supposedly) as bad as some other states, but as there are apparently no rules or consistent standards for how to compile numbers, not much interest in giving tests even to people with symptoms, and all sorts of hanky-panky going on with counting, it’s anyone’s guess exactly what shape we’re in.

Tomorrow, VCU begins reopening in phases, with employees returning in gradually increasing numbers until the start of the Fall semester.  The semester itself will start a few days early, barrel along with no fall break and end at Thanksgiving.  My team and I will continue on with telework unless we have to come in for video productions, which hopefully we can limit to one-man jobs, and take turns.

Out of an abundance of caution, and to test how feasible it would be if we had to do a real quarantine, I stayed in the garage for four days after my VCU visit.  I set up the inflatable mattress for a bed, borrowed Jason’s zero-gravity chair to relax in and hooked up the laptop to work (the garage is right under the wireless router, anyway).  I have to say it wasn’t an entirely unpleasant experience.  Laura cooked me hot meals and left them on the porch for “contact-less pickup” and I got out of household chores.  We bought a shower tent and I set it up in the backyard and used it a couple times.  It worked pretty well, and should be useful on camping trips.  After spending over 3 months in lockdown with the same 4 people — even if they are my favorite 4 people — it was nice to have some alone time, although going from limited socializing to none at all was a bit daunting.  I feel for those folks who live entirely alone in these times.

Anyway, we’ll see what July brings.  It’s not very appealing to imagine spending the rest of 2020 on a short leash, but at the moment it’s still hard to imagine traveling any real distance in the next few months, or doing anything once we got there.  It’s equally hard to imagine going to a movie theater, or a restaurant, or church.  Maybe things will start looking up and we’ll change our minds, but it’s not looking promising at the moment.  Too many people seem to be equating “eased restrictions” with “crisis over,” and the numbers are already showing the folly of that.

Well, this has to count as one my more depressing entries in a while, but I want to get in at least one post per month.  I’ll make the next break shorter and try to post something more upbeat next tme.

Another Month, Another Post

Figured maybe I should check in again as it’s been over a month. You’d think with all this “down time” I’d have more time to write blog posts, but if anything I’m as busy as ever, maybe more so. Working from home means not having clear boundaries of when you’re “on” and “off”, so I find myself doing job-related tasks at all hours, and answering e-mails well into the night, when before I’d have put them off until I got to the office.

The good news is that, so far, I still have a job. VCU is dancing around the idea of furloughs, but at this point nothing’s decided yet. This is good as a lot of other universities are having a much harder time of it. Still plenty of time for things to get worse, though, so I won’t jinx it, but as I told Grace the other day, we have it better than a lot of folks. We’re in a house, not an apartment, so we’re able to maintain a safe distance from other folks. We have the five of us, so no one’s miserably lonely. We all get along with each other, so there’s none of the violence or other ugliness we’re hearing about in some households. And for now at least we’re set on food. with plenty of experience at making our own meals, unlike a lot of friends who before this were eating out several times a week and “cooking” frozen dinners if anything.

I did get around to one half-forgotten “to-do” item, exhuming some of my old articles from the “Mr Kiss-Kiss Bang-Bang” James Bond fan site and giving them a new home here on the blog. Of course in the process I nearly broke the whole blog because I was so rusty at such things. Long story, but happy ending, so I’ll spare you.

I’m also coming along with the guitar, which is astonishing given how many failed attempts I’ve had at learning it in the last 25 years. Laura pointed me to a deal at Fender Play, where I got 3 months of free lessons, and it’s worked for me where several books and DVD courses couldn’t. I think what turned the tide was the freedom to pick up the instrument at all hours of the day, where before I was always either at work or committed to some weekend thing or other, and at night I didn’t want to make noise. Having time and access has been a big help. I’m still somewhere on the upper side of “absolute beginner” but at least I’ve learned some chords and the ability to change from one to the next (if awkwardly), plus a bit about musical notation and theory. So if nothing else I’ll come out of this isolation thing with a new skill. Yay.

The university’s hoping to start phasing the campus back into operation as we near August. It’s dependent on a lot of things, and not helped by Virginia’s dismal failure to get this situation under control. Less than 30% of Virginians stayed home as instructed, and most of them aren’t wearing masks when they do go out (and they tend to travel out of their home county, so it’s not like it’s a run to the grocery store). Not enough people are being tested, not even if they have symptoms and ask for it, so even though we know the infection rate’s going up, we really have no idea by how much. Now Virginia Beach has opened back up, so folks are flocking here from New York and other COVID hot spots. What could go wrong?

Anyway, we’re looking forward to a quiet Memorial Day weekend, with some yard projects on the schedule and whatever else appeals. And we’ll probably spend a few more hours at that great new American Pastime, making masks.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

It occurred to me it’s been a while since I posted here, so on the off chance anyone’s keeping up, I thought I’d add a post to say I’m still among the living, as is the rest of the family, thankfully.

This past Monday marked one full month since my last day at the office, which is officially the longest period I’ve been away, including my honeymoon and family leave for each of the kids. After the first week or so, the days started to blend together, so it’s hard to keep track of the day of the week or the calendar date. Or to care, really. I was corresponding with a friend out West and mentioned the state of the weather, adding “not that it matters.”

Since starting the “work at home” plan, I’ve been through my birthday as well as Jason’s, and Easter. I fully expect to spend Mother’s Day and maybe Father’s Day in isolation, as well. The boys’ Scoutmaster is posting updates and reminders about Summer Camp scheduled for July, but if it actually happens I’ll be shocked. It’s pretty weird after being a slave to the calendar and clock for so long to find myself five weeks into a mushy limbo where time means nothing and there’s no point in trying to plan anything.

I’m determined not to let this time go to waste, though, so I’m catching up on my reading and taking guitar lessons on Fender Play. We’ve also done some home improvement projects that were on the back burner for a long time. I need to churn out some art projects, as well. But it’s not like I have nothing to do: if anything, I’m spending more time on my day job now than when I had an office to go to.

I thought I’d try to focus on more pleasant things here, so now just for fun I’ll share some photos taken on our BSA troop’s last camping trip (for the foreseeable future) in February. We went to D.C. and after decades of visits, I finally got around to going up in the Washington Monument for the first time. Here’s a view looking East to the Capitol dome.

Another looking North to the White (orange?) House:

Then West to the Lincoln Memorial:

…and South to the Jefferson Memorial, and Virginia.

It was a neat experience seeing the city from that height, and strange to think that the entire experience may be off-limits for the foreseeable future: walking past throngs on the Mall, taking a ride up in a crowded elevator, jostling shoulder to shoulder with 20 or so people to stare out of windows from a confined space. Heck, just driving somewhere outside of my neighborhood.

If there’s an upside to this self-isolation mess, it’s been spending time with Laura and the kids. Luckily for us, we all like each other. My “commute” now involves going upstairs to the guest room, all my lunches are spent the kitchen table with the family and if I don’t want to take a shower until mid-morning, no one complains. Well, almost no one.

I’ve no doubt we’ll get through this all somehow, though what life will be like on the other side of it, no one can say. As of right now, I’m expecting to be housebound until mid-June at least. By then it might even be a pleasure to see that empty calendar start filling up again. If it happens.

Self-Isolation, One Week In

Well, I did make it past Wednesday and the big work project: everyone’s up and running with Zoom at VCU, so I can start breathing again. I’ve actually been impressed with how pleasant everyone’s been in such stressful conditions, in a weird way, this seems to be bringing out the best in people.

I’m impressed with the governor of Ohio for taking an aggressive stance on the virus and shutting things down fairly early in the game. Apparently he had a task force in the wings since January with a clear plan on what steps to take, when. And he even appointed an actual physician to head it up, imagine that. It’s been impressive to see people take decisive action on the state, local and even personal level, especially given the total vacuum of leadership in Washington, which follows the “Four Stage Strategy” from “Yes Minister.”

Our own governor’s attitude seems to be “we don’t have that many cases here, so we’re still good.” Never mind that they’re only allowing tests for a select few. But hey, if you don’t test, you can’t test positive, right?

On Thursday, Laura, Grace and I took a walk around the neighborhood just to be out of the house. It was weird seeing so many driveways full of cars on a weekday afternoon. A few folks were out doing yard work or sprucing up their houses; we waved from a safe distance.

Today, I took Laura to Costco in my first car trip in over a week. Milk, meats and other items were being rationed, toilet paper and some cleaning supplies just plain gone, folks in masks and gloves. A weird experience.

So far I’m doing pretty well with the new normal, but it probably helps that “social distancing” has been a way of life for me pretty much as long as I’ve been around.