Thursday, February 25, 2010

It's Oscar Time!

It's Oscar time!

Ah, the Oscars. The Oscars! The gala! The excitement! The HISTORY!

And the winner is… Casablanca!

And the winner is… From Here to Eternity!

And the winner is… West Side Story!

And the winner is… Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle!

And the winner is… Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce!

And the winner is… Diane Keaton in Annie Hall!

And the winner is… Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts!

And the winner is… Robert DeNiro in The Godfather, Part II !

And the winner is… Frank Capra for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town!

And the winner is… John Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre!

And the winner is… Mike Nichols for The Graduate!

And the winner is… Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind!

And the winner is… Jessica Lange in Tootsie!

And the winner is… Clark Gable in It Happened One Night!

And the winner is… James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy!

And the winner is… Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field!

Then, in 1989, they changed it. There are no winners or losers. That’s politically incorrect. Let’s make it more politically correct…

And the Oscar goes to… Rain Man!

And the Oscar goes to… Schindler’s List!

And the Oscar goes to… Chicago!

And the Oscar goes to… Kathy Bates in Misery!

And the Oscar goes to… Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking!

And the Oscar goes to… Charlize Theron in Monster!

And the Oscar goes to… Denzel Washington in Glory!

And the Oscar goes to… Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine!

And the Oscar goes to… Oliver Stone for Born on the Fourth of July!

And the Oscar goes to… Stephen Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan!

And the Oscar goes to… Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain!

And the Oscar goes to… Geena Davis in The Accidental Tourist!

And the Oscar goes to… Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted!

Now, QUESTION: Do you remember who the Oscars “went to” last year?

STOP! DON’T READ THE NEXT FIVE LINES. Try to remember first.

And the Oscar last year went to… Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight!

And the Oscar last year went to… Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona!

And the Oscar last year went to… Sean Penn in Milk!

And the Oscar last year went to… Kate Winslet in The Reader!

And the Oscar last year went to… Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire!

I don’t have to remind you who won Best Picture last year, do I? Here’s a hint: It was one of the five films listed above, and the movie didn’t take place in Germany, the USA, Spain or Gotham.

Hmmm, I wonder if Penelope Cruz will win Best Supporting Actress again this year. She’s nominated for her performance in Nine. If she does win, she will be the first actress in Oscar history to win that award two years in a row. Two other actresses have won the Best Supporting Oscar twice, but they were not in consecutive years. Shelley Winters won for 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank and for 1965’s A Patch of Blue. Dianne Wiest won for 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters and 1994’s Bullets over Broadway. But those awards were separated by six and eight years, respectively. So will Penelope pull it off? Will she win two back-to-back Oscars? Will she win for 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona AND 2009’s Nine? It doesn’t seem likely.

Winning an Oscar two years in a row has only been done by five performers. Luise Rainer won Best Actress for The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937). Spencer Tracy won Best Actor for Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938). Katharine Hepburn won Best Actress for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and The Lion in Winter (1968). Jason Robards won Best Supporting Actor for All the President’s Men (1976) and Julia (1977). And finally, Tom Hanks won for Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994). He was the last one to do it, and it’s been 15 years.

When you figure that in 83 years, only five people have pulled this back-to-back feat, the odds don’t look good that Penelope Cruz will join the ranks of the other five. Besides, it looks like Mo’Nique has the momentum for her bravura performance in Precious. And if she does win, she will be only the second performer with no last name to win an acting Oscar. Who is the other one-name Oscar winner? That’s easy. Cher, who won Best Actress for 1987’s Moonstruck. Duh!

You may have deduced by now that I am an Oscar NERD. Totally. And a GEEK. I am an Oscar nerd-geek.

I have watched every single Academy Awards since 1982. I’m sure I saw some Oscar shows before then, but my memory of the Oscars begins with 1982’s show, which presented the awards for films released in 1981. I was 13 years-old, and the only Best Picture nominees that I had seen were Raiders of the Lost Ark and On Golden Pond. I wanted Raiders of the Lost Ark to win. It was my favorite film of the year (again, I was 13). Well, that Oscar night was my first experience (of many) of being disappointed by who ended up winning. The top awards were won by Reds and Chariots of Fire, which won Best Picture. Neither of those films were teenager-friendly.

I remember being happy that the one Best Supporting Actor nominee whose performance I had seen, John Gielgud in Arthur, won the award. I wanted Best Actor nominee Dudley Moore to win for that same movie, Arthur, because he had made me laugh so hard in his drunk scenes. Well, he lost to Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond. It was another Oscar lesson, two actually: Comedic performances rarely win in the lead categories, and older actors who have never won an Oscar throughout their long careers, will usually be voted the award for sentimental reasons.

Yes, Gielgud wasn't the only old-timer who was finally winning an Oscar that night in 1982; there was also, as I just mentioned, Henry Fonda.

In a celebrated film career spanning five decades, Henry Fonda had only been nominated once, in 1941, for The Grapes of Wrath. His own daughter, Jane, had won two Best Actress Oscars before he had even won his first, and been nominated six times. It was definitely Henry’s turn to win. Not only for the aforementioned reasons, but also because he was in such poor health, that he couldn’t even attend the ceremony. It was obvious that he did not have much longer to live. Despite my having favored Dudley Moore for having made me laugh in Arthur, I was very moved when the envelope was opened, and Henry Fonda’s name was called out.

At that age, I was still very ignorant about classic Hollywood, and knew nothing about Henry Fonda's career except that he was great in On Golden Pond, had appeared in that 1970s attack of the bees movie, The Swarm. The reason I was moved was not because of the body of his work, but by the father-daughter aspect of the award. Jane Fonda was at the ceremony, herself a nominee, and accepted the award for her ailing father, with tears in her eyes, and a trembling, joyful, emotional voice. Later, she brought the statuette home to her dad, who looked frail in a gray beard and a thick sweater. The pictures appeared everywhere the following day. It was all very dramatic and moving, and it got me hooked on Oscar.

In the following years, there was always an aspect of the competition that attracted my attention, and the Best Actress award became my favorite contest, as the 1980s ran their course…

Meryl Streep winning her second Oscar, for Sophie’s Choice, and being so pregnant that I thought her water might break as she gave her speech…

Shirley MacLaine finally winning after many nominations, for Terms of Endearment, beating out her younger co-star Debra Winger, and saying, “I’m going to cry because this show has been as long as my career!”…

Sally Field winning for the second time, for Places in the Heart, prompting her to say, “You LIKE me! You really LIKE ME!”…

Geraldine Page finally winning, for The Trip to Bountiful, and the presenter, F. Murray Abraham saying, after he opened the envelope, “I consider this woman the greatest actress in the English language,” and then genuflecting on his knees before her, in front of an audience that was on its feet…

Marlee Matlin winning for Children of a Lesser God, and being the first deaf person to win an acting Oscar (and the youngest Best Actress winner ever), signing her acceptance speech as her co-star and then-boyfriend William Hurt stood beside her, having just presented her the award due to his Best Actor win the year before …

Cher winning for Moonstruck... Cher! CHER winning an Oscar! CHER!...

Jodie Foster making the transition from child star (and obsession of Reagan shooter John Hinkley) to serious adult actress, by winning for her searing portrayl of a gang rape victim in The Accused...

Jessica Tandy, esteemed theatre legend, winning on her first nomination, for Driving Miss Daisy, and becoming the oldest Oscar winner ever; she was 80 going on 81...

But it wasn't just the Best Actress competition which drew my attention. I was drawn to all things Oscar. My teenage interest in the Oscars grew to such an extent, that one of my high school graduation gifts was an 800-page book called, Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards. I devoured that book, reading every page, fascinated by the behind-the-scenes stories, the politics, the publicity, the scheming, the slights, the paybacks, year after year after year, going from 1927 onwards. I became an expert in Oscar trivia, the firsts, the onlys, the irregularities... this new interest coincided with the birth of cable TV and old movies on videotape for rent at video stores. I began to rent Oscar-winning films, and set about watching every performance that won the award for Best Actor and Best Actress. Often I would be amazed that certain leading role actors and actresses won for THAT performance...

James Stewart winning for The Philadelphia Story, (most likely because he had lost for his superlative performance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington the year before)...

Humphrey Bogart winning for The African Queen, beating out Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (most likely because Bogart hadn't won for Casablanca, or ever before, for that matter)...

Bette Davis winning for Dangerous, beating out Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams (most likely because Davis had, outrageously, not even been nominated for Of Human Bondage the year before, and Hepburn had already won the award 2 years prior)...

Katharine Hepburn not winning her second Oscar for her amazing performances in Alice Adams, The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, The African Queen or Long Day's Journey into Night, but rather, winning her not-so-amazing performance in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (most likely because her her co-star and long-time lover Spencer Tracey had recently died)...

William Holden winning for his brief, remarkably average performance in Stalag 17 (most likely because he had lost for his lengthy, magnificent performance in Sunset Boulevard three years earlier)...

Elizabeth Taylor winning for the trashy Butterfield 8 (most likely because she had just had a tracheotomy, and because had just lost for two years in a row, for her two performances as Tennessee Williams heroines, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer)...

Julie Andrews winning for Mary Poppins (most likely because she had lost her Broadway role of Eliza in the film version of My Fair Lady, to the dubbed, weak-singer Audrey Hepburn, who as punishment, wasn't even nominated that same year for her performance in the film)...

John Wayne, in a year of ground-breaking performances by his younger, fellow nominees, winning for True Grit (most likely because he was an old John Wayne who had never won an Oscar)...

Art Carney, in a year of ground-breaking performances by his younger, fellow nominees, winning for Harry and Tonto (most likely winning because he was an old Art Carney who had never won an Oscar)...

Peter Finch winning the lead award for his supporting role in Network (most likely because he had died of a heart attack just before the ballots were cast)...

...and I haven't even gotten to the 1980s, '90s and '00s yet.

To avoid letting this piece become a longer reading experience than War and Peace, I will just focus on one more irregularity in the Oscars that has often caught my attention: leading role vs. supporting role.

It happened just last year with Kate Winslet in The Reader. During the entire awards season, she had been nominated in the supporting category for her brilliant performance as the illiterate, teen-loving ex-Nazi. I had seen the movie, and was insulted that she had been placed in the supporting category, just because her character wasn't the protagonist of the film. She was clearly the female with the leading role in the movie, and I found it unfair that actresses with legitimate supporting roles, and much less screen time, were made to compete with Winslet, whose role was much bigger, and who therefore was winning every award in sight.

The Academy actually fixed the problem, and nominated her in the leading category. Suddenly the Best Supporting Actress category became a wide-open field. With Winslet placed in the leading category, there was no clear victor in sight in the supporting. I had no clue who might win; none of the nominees had won any of the pre-Oscar awards. Penelope Cruz ended up winning, while Winslet took home the lead award. This was as it should have been. This, however, has not always been the case.

Jennifer Connelly in 2001's A Beautiful Mind, Marcia Gay Harden in 2000's Pollock, and Juliette Binoche in 1996's The English Patient, are only three recent examples of actresses in leading roles placed in the supporting category because the competition in the lead category was very tough, and the studios wanted to better their chances of winning an Oscar. There are many more, if you go further back. Tatum O'Neal was in virtually every minute of 1973's Paper Moon, but was placed, and won, in the supporting category because she was a child at the time, and children are almost never put in the leading category.

In other years with less-tough competition, the opposite has been done. Supporting actresses have been put in the leading category, often having less screen time than other actors in the same movie who were nominated in the supporting category. Three memorable examples of this this include 2002's Best Leading Actress winner Nicole Kidman in The Hours, who actually had less screen time than Best Supporting Actress loser Julianne Moore, in the same movie. Another is 1996's Best Leading Actress winner Frances McDormand in Fargo, who actually had less screen time than Best Supporting Actor loser William H. Macy, in the same movie. And yet another is 1975's Best Leading Actress winner Louise Fletcher in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, who actually had less screen time than Best Supporting Actor loser Brad Dourif, in the same movie.

There are many examples of leading Oscar winners who had the same, or less, screen time than those nominated in the supporting categories that same year. Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), William Holden in Stalag 17 (1953), David Niven in Separate Tables (1958), Simone Signoret in Room at the Top (1959), Patricia Neal in Hud (1963), Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972), Peter Finch in Network (1976), Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Geoffrey Rush in Shine (1996)... none of these winners for the leading Oscar had much more than 20 or 30 minutes of screen time in movies that were 2 to 3 hours long.

And since we're talking about screen time, which is the performance with the smallest amount of screen time to ever win an Oscar? Beatrice Straight, Best Supporting Actress of 1976 for Network, whose entire performance was barely 6 minutes long, and she had only 8 lines of dialogue. The next most brief Oscar winning performance was 1998's Best Supporting Actress Judi Dench, in Shakespeare in Love. Her performance had a couple of more minutes of screen time than Straight's, and a few more lines of dialogue. And the next most brief Oscar-winning performance....?

ENOUGH! Don't get me started. I need to start wrapping this up, or it'll be as long as an Academy Awards show that never seems to be close to wrapping up.

I'll wrap it up with this: who do YOU think will win Best Picture this year, and how many of the nominees have you seen?

This year, you have more movies to see, because this year they increased the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten.

For the last 66 years, there have been five nominees for Best Picture. The last time there were ten was in 1944, when the nominees for the Best Picture of 1943 were...


For Whom the Bell Tolls

Heaven Can Wait

The Human Comedy

In Which We Serve

Madame Curie

The More the Merrier

The Ox-Bow Incident

The Song of Bernadette

Watch on the Rhine

How many of those films have you heard of? Just Casablanca, right? You've SEEN Casablanca, too, most likely, haven't you? Well, Casablanca was the movie on that list that won. What about the others? Maybe you've heard of For Whom the Bell Tolls because it is a famous novel by Ernest Hemingway. But have you seen it, the movie, or any of the others? I'm a total classic film buff, and besides Casablanca, I've only seen The Song of Bernadette and Watch on the Rhine, and that was only because the former won the Best Actress award for Jennifer Jones, and the latter won the Best Actor award for Paul Lukas.

This should give you an idea of the importance of winning an Oscar as time goes by. In 65 years, the chances are higher that your film will still be known.

So here are the ten nominees for the best picture of 2009. Read the list, and ask yourself which of these films, 66 years from now, will be known by people who haven't even been born yet...


The Blind Side

District 9

An Education

The Hurt Locker

Inglorious Basterds


A Serious Man


Up in the Air

I am certain that I will never know which of these films will still be remembered 66 years from now, because I would have to live to be 107, and that ain't happening. But I will be able to have a fairly good clue on March 7, when the 83rd Academy Awards are handed out at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California. I'll be watching. I've been watching for 28 years, so I'm sure I'll be watching for many more,

Oscar nerd-geek that I am.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"It just means bad. Gay is something that you don't want to be."

Yesterday, I was tutoring a 4th grader, Luis. I tutor kids one-on-one. Right now I have six students, and I tutor them on different days.

Luis I tutor every Saturday afternoon for two hours at the public library. I teach him English language arts (I could never teach him math. He would need to tutor me in math).

In any case, the first hour of our sessions we focus on reading. I have him read Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi. He reads three chapters, and we discuss the story, etc.

Pinocchio was written in Italian, in the 1880s. The English translation we are reading is from the 1940s. As a result, there are some words that children today are not familiar with, and I take the opportunity to increase their vocabulary by defining these still-used yet seemingly-archaic words for them.

Well, yesterday, as he was reading, Luis started to giggle. I asked him what was so funny, and he pointed at a word in the text: "gay."

"Why do you think that word is so funny?" I asked him.

"It's a bad word!" he said.

"Read the sentence again," I told him, "and see if you can figure out what 'gay' means in the context of the sentence."

He read the sentence again, and said he didn't know. I told him that, as it it used in the sentence, "gay" means "cheerful." I gave him other synonyms: "joyful, gleeful, merry, jolly..."

" 'Gay' means all those things?" he asked.

"Yes. It can also mean 'lively' or 'exuberant.' Why? What do you think it means?"

"I don't know. It just means 'bad.' If you're gay, it's a bad thing. In school, any kid who does something dumb, or makes mistakes, or isn't liked, or is bad at sports, or dresses bad, is gay."

I decided not to correct him for saying, "dresses bad," rather than, "dresses badly," in favor of sticking to the topic at hand.

"I know what you mean," I said, "for example, if you think something is uncool, you say, 'That's so gay,' or if something looks weird, you say, 'That looks gay,' or if a TV show is bad, 'That show's so gay.' "

"Yeah. Right. It's gay. Did kids talk like that when you were in school?"

"Yes," I said, and then I paused. I didn't know if he knew that gay also refers to homosexuality. When I was nine, I had no idea what homosexuality was (or even what heterosexuality was) but with kids today, you never know...

After thinking it over, I said to him, "So we know that the proper definition of 'gay' means 'cheerful,' and that as slang, some people use 'gay' to mean 'bad.' Can you think of any other way that 'gay' can be used in slang?"

He thought it over for a long time, and said, "No. It just means bad. Gay is something that you don't want to be."

I wanted to tell him, "Well, you should not use that word to mean 'bad' or 'weird' or 'stupid' or 'something you don't want to be,' because 'gay' also means 'homosexual,' and there are lots of kids that, as they become teenagers, realize that they are gay, and it makes them feel less of themselves if they hear their classmates using the word that describes what they are as a pejorative."

I didn't tell him that. I decided to drop the subject. I decided to only teach him that "gay" is a synonym for "cheerful," and move on. Let his parents teach him that "gay" also means "homosexual." That's their job, not mine.

But it did get me to thinking. Anti-gay sentiment is instilled in kids at a very young age. Even before they know what "gay" means, they know it is bad, weird, negative and something that you don't want to be-- even though nobody wants to be gay (you just are or you aren't). But if you are, and you're young, it must be a blow to your self-esteem to hear people using the word for what you are to mean "bad."

Imagine this...

"I hate this class. It's so Asian."

"This movie sucks. It's so woman."

"I'm not doing that. That's so black."

"Look at that awful dress she's wearing! It's so Hispanic."

"Why do we have to do this? It's so white."

"I'm not hanging out with them. They're so man."

Friday, February 5, 2010

"I am so sorry to be retarded..."


There's been a lot of flap in the last few days about Rahm Emanuel's use of the word "retarded" to describe some left-wingers who planned to campaign against any conservative Democratic politician who opposed Obama's health care plan. Actually, I think what he called retarded was the plan, not the the planners themselves.

In any case, this gave Sarah Palin her customary cue to leap on a glib side issue, so that she can garner even more unjustified publicity. Seriously, that woman cannot generate public attention by coming up with creative new policy ideas, or offering any detailed rational solutions to our country's problems. What she CAN do though, is get into verbal tiffs with other celebrities and public figures over trite, easy-to-comprehend social issues to keep the culture war burning.

This time, it wasn't David Letterman who Palin was word-policing. It was Rahm Emanuel. She suggested that he be fired or resign, even though her sweethearts Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have used the R-word many a time.

Which brings me to the actual "R-word." Yes, it seems as though we have yet another word with a capital letter before it. First it was the F-word, then it was the N-word, then it was the B-word, and now it's the R-word.

Today on Facebook, a friend of mine referenced it, writing something like, "The R-word is mean and hurtful and should not be used." Accompanying her statement was a video that she was posting. It was a montage of people on TV saying the R-word.

Well, I had no idea what the R-word was. I sat there for a few seconds, scouring my brain, trying to figure our what the R in the R-word could possibly stand for.

The Rahm Emanuel flap was not in my mind at the time, so I was totally stumped. I knew that I could quickly find out by watching the video, but I resisted clicking "play" until I could guess what the R-word was.

Since it was a woman who found the R-word offensive, I started out thinking of crude words for the female private parts... "Cunt? No, that starts with a C.... Pussy? Naw, P.... Queef? No, that's a Q, and it's not even a part of the female anatomy..."

Then I switched to racial possibilities. The N-word was out, so I tried other racially insensitive terms. "Spic? No, S. Dago? No, D. Chink? No, C....."

Finally, I gave up and watched the video.


THAT'S what the R-word was! Duh! How could I not have guessed that, due to the recent Rahm flap?

Now let me say, that I'm so tremendously fond of the woman who posted the video and used the R-word. She is one of my favorite Facebook friends. She is a rational, sensible, open-minded, smart-as-hell person with a sharp sense of humor. We agree on virtually everything, and I couldn't respect her more. But I must say that I resented her a bit, for having introduced yet another upper case letter-word into our vocabulary, or at least for having spread it around more.

I am so sick of these childish words. N-word, B-word, S-word, F-word, R-word....

Are we in 3rd grade?

"Awmm! You said the R-word! I'm gonna tell the teacher!"

I'm a Latino of mostly Spanish ancestry. I would rather hear a person refer to the word "spic" as "The word 'spic'," than as "The S-word." I think it's very silly to hear an adult say, "And then he used the S-word."

What does the S-word refer to? Shit? Slut? Stupid? Spic? What?!?

This is so much better: "And then he used the word 'spic'."

As a Hispanic, I much prefer this, mainly because I was last a student in elementary school in the '70s, so "S-word" sounds pretty puerile to me in the year 2010.

Believe it or not, not all liberals are politically correct cadets. I, a total, unabashed liberal, abhor political correctness. I can't stand how a person can lose his job over a verbal slip-up. Of course there are some verbal slip-ups that are more severe than others.

Any public official who refers to any black person as "a nigger," or a gay man as "a faggot," or a Mexican as "a wetback," should get booted out of office. However, if a public official calls any man "a prick" or any woman "a bitch," well, that to me is not a fireable offense. It is an offense that demands apology and a lot of eating crow, but it doesn't demand firing.

It's just different. It's a slip-up, but I really don't feel that "bitch" signifies misogyny, or that "prick" signifies misanthropy. After all, I'm a man, and I call other men pricks all the time (under my breath or in private, of course). It doesn't mean I hate men, or that I think men are inferior. It just means that that particular man really annoyed me, angered me or offended me. Is it a bit childish to call a man a prick? Sure, but it's not as childish as calling him a P-word. Bill O'Reilly is a prick, not a P-word (same thing for Glenn Beck).

Same thing with "bitch" and the even more offensive "cunt" (I LOVE that word. It's so strong!). I adore women. In my opinion, it is women who make this planet a livable place. If it weren't for women, this world would be a real cesspool. I actually think that if there IS a superior gender, women are it, no contest. I truly admire them. They are complicated and fabulous. But don't you dare tell me not to mutter the word "cunt" when I see Nancy Grace or Michelle Malkin on TV. Don't you dare. "Cunt," to me, is the perfect word to describe those two bitches, so please don't limit my vocabulary at all times. If it offends you, I won't say it around you. After all, I'm not a prick. But I refuse to erase "cunt" from my vocabulary.

Now let me wrap up this vile piece with a very funny story.

In 1999, I lived in Milan, Italy, where I worked as an English teacher. One of my favorite students was Francesca, a smart, funny, charming, beautiful blond a great sense of fashion, but not a great aptitude for learning English. I'm sure she was great at math, though...

Well, I moved back to New York City in 2000, and, to my delight, she soon moved to New York to do an internship with a fashion designer.

Whenever I'd call her at her boss's office in Manhattan, she would always answer the phone like this: "Hello, I am Francesca."

No matter how many times I'd tell her, in Italian, "Francesca, that's not how it's said in English when you answer the phone. You can say, 'Hello, this is Francesca,' or you can say, 'Hello, Francesca speaking,' but you can't say, 'Hello, I am Francesca.' It's just not said that way."

She'd tell me that she understood, but I'd call her a few days later, and she'd say, "Hello, I AM FRANCESCA."

The problem was that she was translating her thoughts from Italian to English, and in Italian you would say, "Buon giorno, sono Francesca" (Sono means "I am").

Which brings me to the night when Francesca used to R-word to some shocked Americans in a trendy, swanky lounge.

It was a trendy, swanky lounge. I wanted to introduce her to some of my friends. We were to meet at a certain hour, like 8 or 9 o'clock. Of course she was running late. Francesca was always running late. Even when I'd try to fool her into arriving on time by telling her the meeting time was a half-hour earlier, she'd still show up late.

Well, in Italian, the way you say "I'm running late," is Sono in ritardo. Both English and Italian get the word "retarded" from Latin, thus the similarity. However, in Italian, it has evolved to primarily mean "late" wheras in English it primarily means, well, we know what it means.

So Francesca arrives to the lounge, flustered and out of breath, and about an hour late. After I introduce her to my friends, she profusely apologizes for having been in ritardo, so she says to them, "Hello. Hello. Hello. I am SO retarded. I know I am. I am totally retarded. You must please forgive me, it is just the way I always am. I am retarded. I am so sorry to be retarded..."

My friends' jaws dropped and their eyes popped open. I had to explain to them the language mix-up, and when she realized what she said, she said, "Oh my God! I really AM retarded! I am retarded in the Italian sense and I am retarded in the English sense! I am so retarded!"

My friends laughed uneasily. Poor Francesca. In addition to not having mastered the English language, she also hadn't mastered American political correctness. She should have used the R-WORD once she knew the English meaning of retarded.

Didn't she know what a touchy, sensitive place the USA is...?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

San Francisco, We Finally Meet

I'm 41-years-old. It has taken me a long time to visit San Francisco. Well, I'm in San Francisco right now as I type. I'm here for the first time. San Francisco, we finally meet.

It had become a running joke with some of my friends, the fact that I had not yet been to San Francisco. After all, I am known for being a traveler. I've been to 20 foreign countries. True, it's not 100, but it's more than the average person has visited. And in these countries, I've usually visited multiple cities.

For example, in Holland, I didn't just go to Amsterdam, as most tourists do. I also went to Rotterdam, Delft, Utrecht, The Hague, Dordrecht, Haarlem, Gouda, Leiden and Kinderdijk. In Spain, I didn't just go to Madrid and Barcelona. I also went to Segovia, Toledo, Alicante, Malaga, Cordoba, Seville, Granada, Caceres, Zaragoza, Avila, Salamanca, Burgos, Valladolid, Santander, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Girona, Sitges and Montserrat. And don't even get me started on Italy. In Italy, I even went to Fanna. FANNA. Have you ever heard of Fanna? Well, neither have most Italians-- not even those who live in the northeast, where Fanna is secretly located.

Si signori, I had been to Fanna, but not to San Francisco. I had been to Ljubljana, Slovenia, but not to San Francisco. I had been to Bucharest, Romania, but not to San Francisco. I had been to Haifa, Israel, but not to San Francisco. I had been to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, but not to San Francisco... My friends were really giving me a hard time about this, especially after I had gone four years living in Los Angeles, neglecting to visit San Francisco (in favor of San Diego and Las Vegas).

Last year on vacation, did I go from L.A. to San Francisco? Nope. I did, however, go from L.A. to Morelia, Mexico. And Patzcuaro. And Janitzio. And Tapalpa. Have you heard of those Mexican towns? Probably not. I hadn't before last year. But I had heard of San Francisco. Everyone has. People travel from all over the world to visit San Fran. Not I. Not until this week. Finally.

San Francisco, we finally meet.


What the fuck was I thinking, waiting until age 41 to see this city, which is basically a concrete-covered roller coaster of merciless, mountainous hills? The sidewalks here aren't sidewalks. They're walls. You turn a corner and see a wall. You have to crane your head up to see the top of the sidewalk. You don't walk the sidewalk. You scale it. They shouldn't be called sidewalks in this city. They should be called sideclimbs.

Let me explain. I get to know new cities by walking. I'm a major walker. Even if I have taxi fare, when I'm exploring a new city, I walk it. A bus is passing by? So what. I keep walking. It's the only way to really get to know and feel a city, in my opinion.

So: Visit here at age 41? Why didn't I visit here at age 21, when my younger bones put a real spring in my step?

Here's another question: Why am I sitting here writing in my blog, when I am only here for 10 days and should be out seeing the city? Here's the answer: Because my 41-year-old legs can't take it. My ankles and knees are kill-ing me. I'm taking a break.

San Francisco has given me a rude awakening: I am aging. This is my first vacation where I can't walk and walk and walk for hours and hours and hours, then go back to my lodgings, take a shower, change clothes, and experience the nightlife.

Nightlife? That requires more walking up or down hills--prohibitive hills. My body needs to recuperate. I'll just sit here and type...

My first encounter here with a steep, sidewalked hill was quite deceptive. It was on Christmas Eve, when I arrived in town. I'm staying in Nob Hill, and decided to go to Grace Cathedral for Christmas Eve mass. Wow. What a beautiful cathedral, and what a lovely mass. And it gave me a good intro to walking in this city...

You see, on my way to Grace, I was walking along Pine Street, following the map from my Fodor's guidebook. I could see that it was a short walk to the cathedral. Just turn on Taylor Street, walk a block, and you're there. Well, I turned on Taylor Street, and saw an uphill climb so steep, that the sidewalk actually had steps carved into it. As I huffed and puffed my way up the eternal steps, I thought, This isn't so bad. At least the sidewalk has been turned into steps. Steps are easier to climb. If all the steep sidewalks are like this, it won't be so bad...

They are not all like that. In fact, that stretch of Taylor Street is the only stepped sidewalk that I've seen.

Let me just say, so I don't sound like a whiner, that this city is really beautiful. The word that keeps coming to my mind is "wow." That's because, in these few days that I've been here, as I huff and puff my way up a hill, feeling like Shelly Winters in The Poseidon Adventure, I always get a reward once I reach the sidewalk's summit: The view. And the only word that seems to come out of my mouth when I behold the view is, "Wow."

Uphill I'll go... Walk. Up. Hill. Huff. Puff. Sigh. Breathe. Creak. Damn. Climb. Huff. Puff. Ow. Up. Up. Ouch. God. I think I can. I know I can. Pause. Breathe. Fuck. Sigh. Walk. Up. Hill. Up. Up. Step. Step. Huff. Puff... you're at the top. Turn the corner, take a look, and..... "WOW!"

The bay! What a beauuuuutiful view.

Does any city on earth have a more beautiful natural setting? Barcelona, Florence, Lisbon and Quebec City, among the cities I've seen, are runners up. But really, they don't hold a candle to the bay of San Francisco, and views of it, and the sea of roofs below, from the city's hilltop sidewalks. True, I've never been to Rio de Janeiro or Vancouver, but I can't imagine their cityscape blending so seamlessly with the geographical setting as San Francisco's does.

I guess I should just leave it at that. I'm tired, but I really do need to go out there and see more of this charming city. I should stop writing, gather my strength and tackle more of those hills. They're a bitch, but it's because of them that I can turn a corner and say, "Wow!"

All of this beauty comes at a price.

San Francisco, we finally meet... and you are kicking my ass.

Over and out. Out I go.... Huff. Puff. Huff. Puff....

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Never Judge a Teen by His Cover

This week, I started tutoring school-aged kids in English language arts as part of a federally-funded program. I'll be tutoring the kids in their homes or at public libraries.

Today, I had my first student, and I've already learned a lesson. Yes, it was the tutor who learned the lesson.

I arrived in the apartment to find my student's guardian, his aunt, alone. She informed me in Spanish that the boy, Antonio, would be arriving shortly.

The family is from Guatemala and they live, 6 people, in a tiny studio apartment-- the one room being about 12' x 12'. The apartment is not located in a "nice" part of town.

All I knew about Antonio was that he is a 17-year-old who is in the 9th grade. Knowing this, I assumed that he had failed a few grades, since most 9th graders are 14 years-old. As a result, I was worrying that perhaps he'd be a gang guy type.

Soon, two teenage boys entered the apartment. One looked quite clean-cut, neat haircut, wearing a sporty zip-up sweatshirt and nice jeans. He looked like a good kid. The other boy was wearing a big baseball cap tilted to the side, with the bill of the cap straight and uncurved. He wore a T-shirt that was several sizes too big. He wore extra-baggy jeans that were so over-sized that he had to "cinch" them with a belt, his boxer shorts being the only thing that were covering his ass. He had several gold chains around his neck, bracelets and rings, and had piercings. He looked like a Chicano gangsta to me.

Instantly I started hoping that first boy would be Antonio, my student. He was. Whew, I thought.

Well, the first lesson with all of my students is actually not a lesson at all. It's a test. They take the test, which takes them about an hour. Then I grade it, and figure out what are their strengths and weaknesses, and plan my lessons accordingly.

Antonio sat down and started taking the test. I sat and waited. As I did, the other boy (he of the baggy jeans, gold chains and piercings) started to engage me in conversation, in his thick barrio accent. He was very friendly and respectful, to my surprise. He showed me a copy of Shakespeare's Macbeth and asked me if I had ever read it. I told him I had. He then started discussing the play with an enthusiasm which quite frankly stunned me. I am paraphrasing a bit, but this was our conversation...

"We're studying it in English dramatic lit now. It's pretty short for a Shakespeare play, so it didn't take me very long to get through it. What do you think of Macduff?"

My mind drew a blank. I scoured my memory to remember who the hell Macduff was. I hadn't read Macbeth in ages. I said, "You mean the Scottish king that Macbeth kills?"

"No, that's Duncan," he said, "Macduff is the man who suspects Macbeth of killing Duncan, so he goes to Malcom and convinces him to join him in taking revenge on Macbeth."

"Oh," I said, feeling quite inadequate.

"Do you think that Macduff is the personification of morality in the play? 'cuz it's like Shakespeare is using him to represent what is moral, in a play full of immoral people."

At that point my head was spinning. I never thought, when I first laid eyes on that kid, that a word such as personification would come out of his mouth, much less a name like Shakespeare. I felt such shame for having prejudged him as I did, and I simultaneously was wondering how he ever got interested in Shakespeare.

You see, he wasn't some teenager moaning that he has to read Macbeth for English class. He was a teenager who was actively interested in the story, enough so that he wanted to converse about it on his free time with a 41-year-old man.

I said, "I'll be honest with you, I only read it once, in college, and that was back in 1991."

"Whoa," he said, "that was before I was born."

"Yes," I muttered, grimacing at that fact, for the boy was almost as tall as I.

"How come you've never re-read it since?" he asked.

"It's not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays," I said, "Julius Caesar I've read about 5 times, but Macbeth only once."

"It's not one of mine either. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both don't have a struggle of good and evil in them. They're just plain evil. I think it's more interesting when the evil wins over the good, then it's more tragic, you know?"

I marveled at him and asked, "You really like Shakespeare, huh?"

He said, "He's okay. I really-really like Goethe, though."

GOETHE?! This boy reads GOETHE?

He got out one of his school folders and pulled out a few verses of Goethe's Faust. It was covered with yellow highlights and pencil marks, in which he used modern synonyms to define the more obscure words.

"You don't find this too hard to read?" I asked.

"It's hard, but not too hard. I like that it's hard. It's like a puzzle or a code. When there's a word I don't know, I look it up, and when I get all the words together and it all makes sense, it's really cool."

I suddenly realized that I had forgotten all about Antonio, my student, even though he was seated at a table right in front of me taking the test. I asked him if everything was okay and if he had any questions. He shook his head and continued taking the test with great concentration.

From behind me I heard, "Do you like opera?"

This is too much, I thought, I have got to be on Candid Camera. He likes opera, too?

"Yeah," I said, "I like opera. I'm not an aficionado, but I like it. Why? You like it?"

"Well, I've only seen one, but that got me interested in it. Me and a bunch of kids from my school went downtown to the Disney Concert Hall to see La Boheme."

"That's one of the few operas that I know well. I love it. What did you think of it?"

He said, "At first I didn't think I'd get it, because it's in Italian, and I can only speak Spanish and English, but after a while I realized that if I just took in the visual things and opened myself up emotionally to the music, it would all sink in, and it did. I cried when Mimi died. Really."

He not only liked the opera, but he admits that it made him cry. Wow, I thought.

So finally Antonio finished the test, and I said bye to them and left. As I drove home, I couldn't stop thinking about what had just happened. I had caught myself being prejudiced. I am always disdaining prejudiced people, and there I was, being prejudiced.

Sure, he's Guatemalan, and lives in a bad neighborhood, and wears huge, baggy T-shirts and jeans and he piles on the gold chains, and shares a one-room apartment with 5 other people, but that doesn't mean that he can't read Macbeth and write about Faust and cry at La Boheme.

Conversely, there are many white kids living in big houses in the suburbs, who dress like preppies, and, if assigned to read Macbeth, would only read the Cliff Notes. They would hire a nerd to write a paper about Faust, and would have to be dragged to La Boheme, most likely falling asleep in the middle of an aria. Yet, would I have winced at the thought of tutoring them at first-sight? Of course I wouldn't have.

So today, the tutor learned a lesson.

Never judge a teen by his cover.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Today I went to the Pier 1 in my neighborhood to do a little shopping for my apartment, and before I could even enter the store, I saw on the windows the image of a Christmas tree, and the image of a Christmas stocking, and the words, "Make Christmas magic. Kick back & celebrate."

Today is November 2, 2009.

It is only two days after Halloween, and already the Christmas onslaught has begun.

I am so sick of this. Every year it gets worse and worse, earlier and earlier.

As I walked into the store, I could hear Christmas carols blasting over the sound system. The first one that I heard was the one that I hate the most: "It's the most wonderful time of the year... there'll be much mistletoeing and hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near...!" Why is it that they never play the carols that I like, the lovely church carols, like O, Holy Night or Hark, the Herald Angels Sing? Could it be that those songs aren't conducive to buying?

I tried to tune it out, and looked for the things that I need for my apartment. The colors of my living room are earth tones, yet it seemed to me that the only colors that I could see today, at the usually earthy Pier 1, were red, green and gold. I got so annoyed by the premature yuletide assault on my senses, that I grabbed a couple of somewhat muted earth-toned cloth place mats, and went to the cashier to buy them and get the hell out of there.

As she was ringing me up, I said, "I know it's not your fault, but the Christmas decorations and music are really unbearable. It's not even close to being Thanksgiving yet, much less the day after it. It offends me so much that I don't want to spend more time browsing. I just want to leave after 10 minutes." She said something like, "Believe me, I know. I've been having to listen to these carols for over a week, and there's still two more months 'til the Christmas season is over." I looked at her with compassion and said, "You mean they were playing Christmas carols before Halloween?!?" "Oh ya," she said, rolling her eyes. I told her to hang in there and left with my place mats.

As I walked home, I thought about what she had told me. They were playing Christmas carols before Halloween. My heart sank. The situation has become more dire than I had imagined. Before, I had felt that Halloween had become the last firewall that shielded the rest of the year from Christmas consumerism.

When I was a child and a teen, the firewall was Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was a unique and separate holiday. It wasn't Christmas, Act 1. Thanksgiving had its own little season, which lasted from November 1st to Thanksgiving Day. I distinctly remember seeing autumn colors as the November color scheme. Cornucopias, turkeys, Pilgrims and Indians were what were seen in November, not elves, reindeer, stockings and boughs of holly. We used to make turkeys out of pine cones and decorate the dinner table with them during the month of November.

I have photos of Thanksgiving 1973. I was 5. I had made a Native American vest from a brown paper grocery bag, and painted tribal symbols on it with watercolors. I made a headband with paper feathers. I dressed as an Indian rather than a Pilgrim because, even in kindergarten, I was a bleeding-heart liberal, and I intrinsically sensed that the Indians had gotten a raw deal from Whitey. But I would have easily dressed as a Pilgrim before I ever imagined dressing as a North Pole elf. Why? Because it was the Thanksgiving season, naturally. Once Thanksgiving Day was over, then the Christmas season began.

I find it curious that Bill O'Reilly, and other right-wing nuts, rail against the "War on Christmas" when the real war has been against Thanksgiving, and Christmas has won.

Perhaps I'm being partial. I love Thanksgiving. It's my favorite holiday. There's something very simple and beautiful about it. You partake in a feast with family, friends and often acquaintances and strangers, in thanks for the blessings of life. There are so many rotten aspects to life, but on Thanksgiving, you focus on the blessings, as you feed your body with hearty, delicious food. To me, there is no greater way to express the bounty of life than with a really big, satisfying meal.

In addition to recognition of thanks via eating, there's also the friendship of the opposites, of the unknown. The Pilgrims and Indians were like oil and water. They really didn't know, understand or trust each other, but they were able to gather together for one meal, in peace and brotherhood, because they shared a common thanks for a good harvest.

Unfortunately, that one meal did not symbolize the relations between the European settlers and the indigenous Americans in general, but hey: for one meal, things were as they should have been.

I can identify with that first Thanksgiving. For most of my life, my family has lived in Houston and Miami. During the years that I've lived in New York City and Los Angeles, I've often not been able to go home for Thanksgiving. But it hasn't really mattered, because there were always others who couldn't go home for Thanksgiving either, and we would band together and make a big feast. Usually at these expat gatherings, I'd be friends with a few of the people, and the rest would be strangers. I liked eating Thanksgiving with strangers. That sense of breaking bread with people whom you don't really know, it made it feel more like the Pilgrims and the Indians, back in 16-whenever-it-was.

Another thing that I like about Thanksgiving is that anyone can celebrate it. It doesn't matter which country or culture you come from, what your religion is, or if you even have a religion or a belief in God at all. The recognition of the good things in life knows no borders and has no specific faith.

But perhaps most importantly, what I like about Thanksgiving, is that it cannot be tainted by consumerism. Besides buying the turkey, or the yams, or the green bean casserole, or the pumpkin pie, there's really not much else that you can buy, besides a bottle of wine or some after-dinner cognac. Thanksgiving has not been contaminated by capitalism, like Christmas, nor does it seem like it ever will be.

Capitalism has forever changed Christmas. I don't mean to start sounding like Emma Goldman, but it's a holiday that has been marketed to the masses to the extent that the very seasonal parameters of the holiday have been pushed back two months. We start the season earlier because we start hearing the carols in restaurants and shops earlier, the malls are decked with decorations earlier, we start seeing commercials on TV earlier, and so we start trimming the tree earlier and earlier and earlier.

Let me give you an example of how out-of-touch modern society has become with what Christmas was traditionally in the Anglo world. You of course know the famous song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Well, do you know what those 12 days are? What days on the calendar are the 12 days of Christmas? Is your mind drawing a blank? Give up? Well, the first day of Christmas is December 25, Christmas Day, and the twelfth day is January 6, Epiphany. Do you even know what Epiphany is?

In the West, Epiphany celebrates the day when the Magi visited the baby Jesus. According to Christian legend, the Magi (or Three Wise Men) arrived 12 days after Jesus was born, although you'd never know it, because most modern Christmas paraphernalia shows them arriving on Christmas Eve. Anyway, for this reason, the trimming of the Christmas tree was done on Christmas Eve, because the Christmas season began the following day, and lasted 12 days, ending on Epiphany.

Today it is very rare to see a Christmas tree that is still standing by January 6th. In fact, last year on my block, I saw several discarded trees on the curb on December 26th. Not that I blame them. By the day after Christmas, they had had their trees up for almost two months. They were probably sick of the sight of them.

Please don't think of me as Ebeneezer Scrooge. If people want to have a Christmas season that lasts longer than 12 days, fine. In some non-Anglo countries, it lasts 40 days, but it begins on Christmas day, and ends on February 2nd, which is the Christian feast of Candlemas.

But not in America, baby! If we're gonna prolongate the holiday, we're gonna make it buyer-friendly! You need time to buy gifts before Christmas Day, not after it, so from now on the holidays will precede Christmas, by two months! Screw the holy aspects of it. Christmas day is the finale, not the opening act.

Halloween is the kick-off to BUY BUY BUY season, Thanksgiving is incorporated into the monster, and we are bombarded with images that have nothing to do with Christ, but have everything to do with Santa.

By New Year's Eve, most Americans have spent an pretty huge sum of money, and spend the month of January tightening their belts and trying to recuperate, completely unaware that January is, in fact, the traditional Christmas season according to the Christian calendar, and that Christmas is not the holiest Christian day (Easter is).

But who am I to complain? Although I was raised Catholic, I am no longer a believing Christian. I am a happy Agnostic. I'll let my Christian friends try to pry Christ out of Santa's arms, if they care to. He's their god, not mine.

I'm writing this manifesto in defense of Thanksgiving, which is everybody's holiday, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic or what have you.

I want to save Thanksgiving from the Christmas of the Capitalists, not the Christmas of the Christians. The Christmas of the Christians begins a month after Thanksgiving. The Christmas of the Capitalists begins a month before it, the day after Halloween. The way things are going, within 20 years, it'll begin the day after the Fourth of July. To prevent that, though, we must first save Thanksgiving. Save Thanksgiving!

I've had it. This war.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Very Important Death

Do you recognize the young lady in the portrait above? Of course you don't. Perhaps you'll recognize her name, Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales. Does that help? Of course it doesn't. What American knows who Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales was? In fact, I'm wondering, what average Briton knows who she was?

It's not surprising that she's virtually unknown today. The poor girl died at the age of 21, back in 1817, before she was able to achieve anything. She could have achieved a lot, had she lived. After all, she was meant to be the queen regnant of England. Had she lived, she would have assumed the throne in 1830, when her father, King George IV died.

Had Princess Charlotte lived, Queen Victoria would never have been born, and therefore, Queen Elizabeth II would never have been born. For that matter, the English kings Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI would never have been born. Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry would also, never have been born.

A lot of the royalty of other European countries would never have been born had Princess Charlotte lived... Kaiser Wilhem II of Germany, the czarina Alexandra of Russia, King George II of Greece, King Alexander I of Greece, King Paul I of Greece, King Constantine II of Greece, King Olav V of Norway, King Carol II of Romania, King Michael of Romania, King Harald V of Norway,
King Peter II of Yugoslavia, King Carl XVI of Sweden, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, and King Juan Carlos of Spain.

All of these crowned heads are descendents of Queen Victoria. I looked on a royal website and saw that Queen Victoria, at present, has 1,056 descendents. None of them would have been born had Princess Charlotte lived, because again, Queen Victoria would never have been born had Princess Charlotte lived. There never would have been a Victorian Age.

The story behind the birth of Victoria, the world's longest reigning female monarch, is very interesting to me. But to even approach her birth, we must start with the death of her cousin, Princess Charlotte, because although Charlotte was her first-cousin, she was old enough to have been her mother.

Here's the story. Princess Charlotte's grandfather was King George III. He was the English king who lost the American colonies, the king whom our founding fathers rebelled against. It's kind of great that he was such lousy king to the colonists, because had he not been, the USA may never had been born.

But I digress. Back to George III.

George III had 15 children.With 15 children, one would assume that the succession to the throne would be secure. Surely 15 children would eventually produce 30, 45, even 60 grandchildren. Well, 57 grandchildren were produced, but all of them were illegitimate, except one: Princess Charlotte Augusta. So for royal purposes, George III's 15 children only produced one grandchild.

Princess Charlotte was produced by George III's oldest son, the Prince of Wales, also named George. As the heir to the throne, he did his duty and produced an heir, or rather, an heiress. The Prince of Wales had a hideous marriage with his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. No male children (who would knock Charlotte out of the line of succession) would be produced by the couple, because after Charlotte was born, they promptly stopped having sex with each other, due to an intense, mutual loathing which lasted decades.

So Charlotte was it. The only legitimate heir of her generation of the family, a princess with no brothers or sisters, but with 56 illegitimate first-cousins.

From girlhood, the common people knew that one day she would be their queen, and she was adored, the darling of the nation. The young, virtuous princess offered a sharp contrast to her royal uncles, who were known for their financial debts, public scandals, bastard offspring and disreputable private lives.

She married a dashing and handsome prince, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and the lovely couple were the pride of the kingdom. Then came the joyous news that the princess was pregnant; the next generation's monarch could be produced in a matter of months. True, she had suffered two previous miscarriages, but this time it should go smoothly. Her doctors closely monitored the new pregnancy, putting her on a severe diet, and performing on her the questionable practice of bloodletting.

Well, the due date came, and Princess Charlotte went into labor. She labored. And labored. And labored and labored and labored. She labored for 50 hours. Two full days of labor. Finally, her laborious labor produced a 9-pound baby boy. The boy would have been king one day, had he not been born dead. The plump, stillborn baby was taken away, and the exhausted Charlotte lived for another six hours, and died.

Princess Charlotte, dead!

The nation descended into a maelstrom of mourning. Do you think the Brits were overwrought by Princess Diana's death in 1997? You should have seen them when Princess Charlotte died in 1817. After all, Diana's death did not affect the succession to the throne. There was Prince William, Prince Harry, and the two daughters of Prince Andrew. But when Charlotte died, that was it. Her father and mother were still married, but estranged, and they were old. They would produce no more children. Charlotte's uncles were all that was left. The throne was destined to be inhereted by dissolute uncle after dissolute uncle.

UNLESS... one of those dissolute uncles could produce a legitimate heir!

There were six of them, and three of them were married. Of the three married uncles, two were married to women who were too old to have secure pregnancies, and the third was in a morganatic marriage, meaning their offspring could hold no royal title.

Of the three unmarried uncles, two were involved in long-term relationships with their mistress, and the third seemed to have little interest in women.

So it was up to the two uncles with mistresses to dump their mistress, marry a princess, and produce an heir that would save the crown from oblivion.

The elder of the two mistress-involved brothers was William, Duke of Clarence. The younger was Edward, Duke of Kent.

William had been in a 20-year relationship with a well-known actress of the day, and together, they had 10 bastard children and happy family. After Princess Charlotte's death, he left his happy bastard family and married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen.

Edward on the other hand, had been in a 27-year relationship with French Madame. After Charlotte's death, he bid her adieu and married the sister of his dead niece's widower, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.

Within two years of Charlotte's death, both brothers had pregnant wives. In March of 1819, William's wife gave birth to a baby girl, whom they called Charlotte, in honor of her dead cousin. In March of that same year, Edward's wife also gave birth to a baby girl, Alexandrina Victoria (or as she was simply called, Victoria).

William was the elder brother, so it was his daughter, Charlotte, who would one day become queen, except for one problem: Charlotte died on the day of her birth, so Victoria, the daughter of the younger brother, was heiress presumptive-- for the time being. William and his wife would not let one dead infant stop them from having others, and William's wife was soon pregnant again. In December of 1820, little Victoria was knocked out of the line of succession by the birth of her younger cousin, Princess Elizabeth.

Little Elizabeth would have grown up to become Queen Elizabeth II, had she not died three months after her birth. As a result, the world would have to wait another 132 years for a Queen Elizabeth II.

What the world got in her place was Queen Victoria.

I imagine that Edward would have been awed by the fact that he, the fourth-youngest son of George III, would one day become king, and that his daughter, Victoria, would succeed him. It would become inevitable, as time passed without his older brother producing any living children. But the inevitable didn't happen to him. Edward would not see time pass, because he died 8 months after Victoria was born. He would never become king.

Upon the death of George III, his eldest son, George the Prince of Wales, became King George IV. He reigned for ten years and died. The next in line for the throne would have been his daughter Charlotte, but she was dead. Next in line. His brother Frederick, but he was dead. Next in line. Frederick's children, but he had none. Next in line. His brother William. He was alive, and he became King William IV. He reigned for seven years and died. The next in line for the throne would have been his daughter Charlotte, but she was dead. Next in line. His daughter Elizabeth, but she was dead. Next in line. His brother Edward, but he was dead. Next in line. Edward's daughter Victoria, and she was alive.

Victoria, the 18-year-old girl at the end of the line, was alive and well, and she reigned as queen for 63 years. She resided over an empire that spread so far across the globe, that the sun never set on it. Her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren have become kings and queens that have greatly influenced modern history.

Yet none of these monarchs would have been born, had Victoria not been born. Kaiser Wilhelm II and King George V would never had led Germany and the UK through World War I, had Victoria not been born, and been their grandmother. There would never have been a Victorian era, had there been no Victoria. We wouldn't even have the tradition of Christmas trees outside of Germany, had Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert not introduced them to the Anglo world in the 19th century. These, and so many other historical and cultural effects would never have happened, IF....

...Victoria's older cousin Charlotte had not died in childbirth, changing world history irrevocably.

I believe that the death of the forgotten Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales is one of the most important deaths in world history.

Food for thought as you decorate your Christmas tree this holiday season.