A LOVELY WAR: A WORLD WAR I MEMORIAL – Marilyn Armstrong

Happy Birthday, Great War. It’s 105 years since the day you officially started. World War I (WWI), also known as the First World War, was a nearly global war. It officially began on July 28, 1914, though its real beginnings were rooted in events beginning decades, even centuries earlier.

It was an ugly, devastating war. Four years of slaughter that — technically — ended on November 11, 1918.

The official number of military casualties is 22,477,500 killed, wounded, or missing in action. The combined number of military and civilian casualties is more than 37 million. If, as I do, you consider World War II as chapter two of the same conflict, the number of dead becomes even more incomprehensible.

For the past couple of weeks, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has been “celebrating” the centennial of the first world war, inviting historians and military people to do the introductions and closing comments on the films. General Wesley Clark has been doing TCM’s intros and outros, the last of which was for Oh! What a Lovely War.

He referred to the movie as a musical comedy. While it has amusing moments, calling it a musical comedy doesn’t really cut it. If comedy can be dark, this is one dark comedy.

It’s also surprisingly informative. I can date my interest in World War I and modern American history to seeing this movie when it was released in 1969.

In his closing comments following the movie, General Clark said he hoped we had learned our lesson from this and all the other wars of the past century. I turned to Garry and said, “And what lesson, exactly, might that be?”

“Obviously,” said my husband, making a sour face, “We have learned nothing.”

I agree. Well, I guess we did learn a few things. We learned to build more efficient weapons, including weapons of mass destruction. We can kill more people faster — but no deader — than we did 100 years ago. Much of our military technology emerged during and post-WWI.

I don’t see this as progress. If you want to know why I’m so cynical, why I have trouble believing in a benign deity, look at the casualty figures from the collective wars of the past century.

I love this movie. Not only because of its historical veracity — it’s accurate — but because the music is wonderful. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British cinema at the time — Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson and more, all having a great time.

I’ve seen this many times and I guess so has Garry since we can both know the words to all the songs.

Catchy. Very catchy.


OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR

Directed by Richard Attenborough (his directorial début)

OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR

I saw “Oh! What a Lovely War” when it was released in 1969 and never forgot it. Based on the long-running British stage production, it’s World War I — in song, dance, and irony. Its catchy score sticks in your brain.

The songs are those sung by the troop during that long war. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British stage or screen during the 1960s. The credits were a veritable whos-who of English actors.

World War I is hard to understand, even when you study it. No matter how many books I read, I’m not sure I do or will. Its causes are rooted in old-world grudges that make no sense to Americans.

So many ancient hatreds — thousands of years of scores to be settled.

My mother summed it: “Everyone was armed to the teeth. They wanted war. They just needed an excuse. Europe was a giant bomb waiting for someone to light a match.”

Hers may be as good an answer as any other. When the war began, it was the old world. The crowned heads of Europe ruled. When it finally ground to a halt in 1918 (it didn’t really end — WWII was the second chapter of the same war), the world had changed beyond recognition. The European monarchies were gone. A generation of men had been slaughtered; the death toll was beyond belief. The callous indifference to the loss of life by those in command remains incomprehensible.

More than 9 million men were killed in battle. This does not include collateral damage to non-combatants and death by disease or starvation. It paved the way for major political upheaval throughout the world.

Says the movie at the beginning: “The principal statements made by the historical characters in this film are based on documentary evidence, and the words of the songs are those sung by the troops during the First World War.”

The first World War could be called an orchestrated, organized international effort to murder a generation of men. They did a good job.

The statements of the historical characters — all lodged a safe distance from the fighting — are ludicrous. General Haig, looking at the staggering loss of life on both sides, really said: “in the end, the Germans will have 5,000 men and we will have 10,000, so we will have won.”? He said it. And meant it.

The arrival of the Americans and their takeover of the endless war — bringing it to a conclusion while there was still something left to save — is a great cinematic moment. I wonder how long it would have gone on without American involvement? Would Europe exist or would it all be a wasteland?

The war is told with music and dancing. Songs mixed with pithy comments from generals, kings, Kaisers, and soldiers. It’s a long movie — 144 minutes — and I can promise you that you will have a far better and more visceral understanding of this war and what those little red poppies the Veterans organizations give out (do they still do that?) to commemorate the war to end all wars. Until the next war. And the one after that.

The music is ghastly, funny, catchy. The movie is out of print. It was only in print for a couple of months. I had been looking for it for a long time and was thrilled to snag a copy. A few copies are still available through Amazon. If you are a history buff and love great movies, grab one.

Great directing, biting sarcastic humor, terrific music and informative, this movie is in a category all by itself. It was unavailable for more than 20 years. You won’t be disappointed and you won’t forget it. In the 45 years since I first saw it, I haven’t forgotten it.


From Amazon.com:

Richard Attenborough’s directorial début was this musical satire that deftly skewers the events of World War I — including the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a Christmastime encounter between German and British forces, and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles — by portraying them as absurd amusement park attractions. The all-star cast includes Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson; look quickly for Jane Seymour in her screen début.


144 min. Widescreen (Enhanced); English Dolby Digital mono; Subtitles: English; audio commentary by Attenborough; “making of” documentary.

WHO SAID LIFE IS FAIR? – Marilyn Armstrong

With shock and grief, I hear the wailing of betrayed youth. They have made the awfulest Big Discovery.


Life is unfair.


You work hard, perform brilliantly yet wind up bruised and forgotten. Then again, you might find yourself famous, rich, and covered with honors. It’s not cause and effect, though we like to think it is … until the economy, health, or other people betray those beliefs.

The younger me knew — with 100% certainty — that work, talent, ambition and determination were magic. The older me learned you can do everything right, follow all the rules and then some, and it still doesn’t work out.

bankruptcy

I did it all. I worked hard and with more than due diligence. I smiled when I wanted to snarl to keep that critical positive attitude. I was creative. I gave it my all.

I did okay, but while I worked hard and put in overtime, I watched the suck-ups, second-raters, and those who worked cheaper if not better, move past me. I came in early and stayed late while they went to meetings and took long lunches. If I’d gone to more meetings, would that have changed the outcome?

Somehow, I doubt it. I can’t be someone I’m not, though I sure did try. It’s out of my hands. I’m a passenger on this bus and it’s a long ride ahead of me (I hope).

Former belief: Play by The Rules, give it your all. You are bound to “make it.”

Current belief: Do the best you can and hope for a bit of luck and a boss who really likes you. Oh, and a company that won’t go bankrupt before you get paid. If not, enjoy life. It’s the only one you’ve got.

We tell our kids if they do it all right they will get that pot of gold. We don’t tell them that work sucks. Most of their bosses will be morons who know less than they do and have less talent.

But we also were right. They will earn a reward: the satisfaction of knowing they did their best. It’s a big reward. Everyone can count on it and no one can take away.

We have to try. If we succeed and for a while, we get a piece of the good stuff, at least enough to feel it wasn’t a waste of time, that’s great. For some, it just doesn’t happen. Bad luck? Wrong attitude? Crappy economy? Not quite enough talent?

And you have to know that trying may not be enough. You also need talent and luck and good timing.

Sometimes, you need a better agent.

I no longer believe in inevitable triumph. There’s always a chance you’ll make it to the top and it’s fantastic if the magic works. For me, realism has replaced optimism. Everyone’s best achievement is living up to our best self. If this also turns into a success, I’ll wear your t-shirt. If not, this is an achievement no one can ruin. You can’t control the world, but you can control yourself.

Life’s a roller coaster. You’re up and then you’re down. Screaming, crying, laughing … you go where the rails take you. Life will surprise you and sometimes a loss becomes a winner and will give you moments of unimagined joy.

Rejoice when times are good, but if you must, cope with the darkness. You can learn a lot in the dark.

PASS THE SANDPAPER. I’M BUFFING. – Marilyn Armstrong

Buff has lately come to mean “handsome guy.” For me, it’s wood finishing. Especially the kind of sandpaper or buffing cloth I need to get the wood as silky as I can. I used to do a lot of that sort of thing before my son grew up and took away all my tools because I was obviously too helpless to do anything involving tools with sharp edges.

These pictures are very buffed!

It’s not that I’m helpless these days, but I am wobbly. It makes clambering up chairs or stepladders dicey. Nonetheless, carefully hidden in my hall closet, I have a little jigsaw and mini power sander in case I get an uncontrollable urge to carve a piece of local oak.

I know language changes. As a rule, I change with it because that’s how it goes. I have watched American English drift into something that sounds more like tweets than language. I don’t necessarily like the drift, but I go with it anyway.

Every now and again, a word is used in a way that simply annoys me.

Buff as a description of the human male? That’s one of them. Unless, of course, he used to be a hunk of wood but has now been properly polished and smoothed to an ultra-fine finish!

MY OLD NEIGHBORHOOD – Marilyn Armstrong

I grew up in a semi-rural nook in the middle of Queens, New York. The city had surrounded us leaving a tiny enclave walking distance from the subway.

The house was more than a hundred years old. It had been changed by each family who had lived there, so much that I doubt the original builder would have recognized it. From its birth as a 4-room bungalow in the 1800s, by 1951 it had become a warren of hallways, staircases and odd rooms that could be hard to find.

96-Holliswood1954

It sat at the top of a hill amidst the last remaining mature white oaks in New York, the rest having fallen to make masts for tall ships. The shadows of the oaks were always over the house. Beautiful, huge and a bit ominous. Some of the branches were bigger than ordinary trees. I remember watching the oaks during storms, how the enormous trees swayed. I wondered if one would crash through the roof and crush me.

I was four when we moved into the house, five by summer. When the weather grew warm, I was told to go out and play. Like an unsocialized puppy, I had no experience with other children, except my baby sister and older brother and that didn’t count. Now, I discovered other little girls. What a shock! I had no idea what to do. It was like greeting aliens … except that I was the alien.

First contact took place on the sidewalk. We stood, three little girls, staring at each other. First on one foot, then the other, until I broke the silence with a brilliant witticism. “I live up there,” I said. I pointed to my house. “We just moved here. Who are you?” I was sure they had a private club into which I would not be invited. They were pretty — I was lumpy and awkward.

Oak woods

“I’m Liz,” said a pretty girl with green eyes. She looked like a china doll, with long straight hair. I wanted that hair. I hated mine, which was wild, curly and full of knots. She gestured. “I live there,” she pointed. The house was a red Dutch colonial. It had dark shutters and a sharply pitched roof.

A dark-haired, freckle-faced girl with braids was watching solemnly. “I’m Karen,” she said. “That’s my house,” she said, pointing at a tidy brick colonial with bright red geraniums in ornate cement pots on both sides of a long brick staircase. I’d never seen geraniums or masonry flower pots.

“Hello,” I said again, wondering what else I could say to keep them around for a while. I’d never had friends, but something told me I wanted some. We stood in the sunlight for a while, warily eyeing each other. I, a stranger. I shuffled from foot to foot.

Finally, I fired off my best shot. “I’ve got a big brother,” I announced. They were unimpressed. I was at a loss for additional repartee. More silence ensued.

“We’re going to Liz’s house for lemonade,” Karen said, finally. Liz nodded. They turned and went away. I wondered if we would meet again. I hadn’t the experience to know our future as friends were inevitable.

Summer lasted much longer back then than it does nowadays. By the time spring had metamorphosed into summer, I had become a probationary member of The Kids Who Lived On The Block. I did not know what went on in anyone else’s house. I imagined the lights were bright and cheerful in other houses. No dark shadows. No sadness or pain except in my scary world where the scream of a child in pain was background noise, the sound of life going on as usual. Behind it, you could hear my mother pleading: “Please, the neighbors will hear!” As if that was the issue.

Across the street, Karen’s mother was drinking herself into a stupor every night. The only thing that kept Karen from a nightly beating was her father. He was a kindly older man who seemed to be from another world. As it turned out, he would soon go to another world. Before summer was ended, Karen’s father died of a heart attack and after that, she fought her battles alone.

Three friends

October 1952

In the old clapboard house where I thought Liz led a perfect life, battles raged. Liz’s father never earned enough money and their house was crumbling. It legally belonged to Liz’s grandmother. Nana was senile, incontinent and mean, but she owned the place. In lucid moments, she always reminded Liz’s dad the family lived there on her sufferance. Where I imagined a life full of peace and goodwill, there was neither.

A lovely neighborhood. Fine old homes shaded by tall oaks. Green lawns rolling down to quiet streets where we could play day or night. I’m sure the few travelers who strayed onto our street, envied us.

“How lucky these folks are,” they must have thought, seeing our grand old houses. “These people must be so happy.”

I have a picture in my album. It’s black and white, a bit faded. It shows us sitting in Liz’s back yard. I’m the tiny one in the middle. A little sad. Not quite smiling.

We envied each other, thought each better off than ourselves. It would be long years before we learned each other’s secrets. By then, we’d be adults. Too late to give each other the comfort we’d needed as we grew up. Lonely in our big old houses, all those years ago.

QUOTES ABOUT FREEDOM – Marilyn Armstrong

I really hate that we fought this war for civil rights before and it has come back. But more than that, I hate how easy it was for one detestable human being to make it happen. It took less than three years. I never imagined our freedom could be chipped away so fast … and I hate it!


“If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” ― George Washington

“To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile but is morally treasonable to the American public.” ― Theodore  Roosevelt

“Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.” ― Neil Gaiman

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” ― George Orwell

GIFTS, DREAMS, AND MAKING IT HAPPEN – Marilyn Armstrong

The lie has become so ingrained in our culture that we accept it without question. Today, I question it, its validity and its basis. Just because it has become our national motto doesn’t make it right.

This is the lie we tell ourselves and our children:

“If you want it bad enough and try hard enough, you can achieve anything. If you don’t achieve it, it’s because you gave up, didn’t try hard enough. Not achieving your dreams makes you a failure.”

That is not true.

We cannot achieve anything because we want it. Trying terribly hard can take you only so far. The rest of the distance requires actual ability in that field of endeavor, talent to make a dream come true.

You can’t be a blind artist. You can’t be a tone-deaf musician. You can’t write when you’ve no gift for words. You can’t be physicist if you find mathematics incomprehensible. You can’t be a carpenter or an engineer if you cannot visualize in three-dimensions. You can’t take pictures if you don’t see them in your mind’s eye. That’s not defeatism. It’s reality.

I don’t know when being a pragmatist became synonymous with defeatism. It infuriates me when someone tells me I shouldn’t give up on a dream because if I keep trying, I will succeed.

No, I won’t. It isn’t going to happen. It was never possible. I know what I can do. I know what I can’t do. Being told that I should never give up my dreams makes me want to whack the speaker of this un-wisdom upside the head.

I’m in favor of dreams as long as you know the difference between a dream and an expectation. I’m in favor of knowing who you are, evaluating your talents, recognizing your abilities. Everyone has dreams. Everyone has gifts. Sometimes the two coincide so that you can ride your dreams into a golden future. This outcome is not in everyone’s cards.

I wanted to be a musician. It wasn’t an outlandish dream. I had started piano when I was only four. I continued with it all through my school years and was in college, just one credit shy of completing my B.A. in Music when a professor took me aside for a chat.

He said: “You do well in your courses. You get As in everything, so there’s no problem with grades. Except I see you. Your heart isn’t in it, not the way it needs to be. Music requires total commitment. Maybe you would be happier doing something else. Keep music as a hobby. Do something you’re really good at, really passionate about. Being a second-rate musician won’t make you happy.”

Piano lessons

I was mortified. Crushed. I played pretty well. I suffered from terminal stage fright, but I had a good ear and I loved music. I still do. Yet when I gave it serious thought, I knew the truth. I would never fully commit to music. It was not the right path for me.

My real talent lay in words. I could write as soon as I could read. It was as natural to me as breathing and I never even thought of it as a gift because it was so easy. I just figured anyone could do it. I had to do some major rethinking and revise my self-image. It was painful and difficult. I never gave up playing the piano, but it stopped being my professional goal. As a bonus, when I stopped trying to become a professional musician, I began to enjoy music more.

I refocused my energy on writing and immediately, life turned around. I stopped plodding and began to fly. I never took a writing class. I just started working as a professional writer from my first job after college and never did anything else professionally for the next 40 years.

If Dr. Deutsch (thank you, Herb, you really gave me a push in the right direction) had not sat me down and told me the truth as he saw it, I’d probably have continued down a road that would have led me nowhere I really wanted to go. He didn’t buy the lie and refused to let me buy it.

No one can create talent. That’s why talents are called gifts. You get them free of charge along with the breath of life. Yet we keep hearing that lie — try hard and you can make it happen. We waste years trying to achieve the impossible while dismissing the achievable. We neglect real gifts in favor of magical thinking. What a waste!

Dreams are not the goal. Creating a good and satisfying career and life should be the goal. We all need to take stock of ourselves, look hard at what we do well, focus on our strengths, hone our talents, and plan a future that works.

The freedom you gain when you stop trying to do the impossible and put your whole heart into using your abilities is inestimable. You stop feeling like a failure. You get to love your work. You can dump the dead weight of dreams as well as the guilt and frustration of not fulfilling them. Just because you can’t be a ballerina doesn’t make you a failure. Being a lousy dancer when you could have been a great something else IS a failure  … a lose-lose for you and society.

Distinguishing dreams from reality is a winning strategy. Like it or not, we live in the real world. Dreams are not real.

Don’t buy the lie.