24 March

That Old Feeling: Beauty And The Beast

by Jon Katz
Beauty And The Beast

Maria and I went to see Beauty And the Beast tonight at our favorite little theater in Bennington, Vt., it costs $9 a ticket for the early show and popcorn and drinks are about $6. The theater is never full or crowded. The movie turned out to be more personal for me than I expected.

Beauty and the Beast is a romantic fantasy. The movie was fine, a solid B +, warm and pretty and filled with the next generation of talking households objects at Disney Theme Parks.

The girl ends up being a princess, just like Disney heroines used to end up, but along the way, Belle (Emma Watson) was strong, brave and fiercely independent, as Disney heroines are supposed to be now.

Some context. Beauty and the Beast is a very old story. It was written in 1740 by French novelist Gabrielle Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve.  It was a big, thick, complex work.

The story in various forms is one of the world’s oldest tales, researchers have traced different versions of it back more than 4,000 years.

It has very deep resonance for many people, especially men who feel they are too grotesque, insecure, violent and disgusting to be loved by women. Or women who wonder if they can see past the worst parts of men in order to love them and see their better angels.  It is a story for the ages, and in many ways, the story of powerful men in our modern culture.

It is aso the story of me in a way, it is much the way in which I have seen myself for most of my life. And I have always been a little haunted by it, all the great fairy tales seem to do that.

The current cinematic version has been thoroughly, almost overwhelmingly Disneyfied. The movie was enjoyable but poured through that special and very  safe Disney prism.  To be honest, I was expecting something darker and meatier from Disney these days, but they played it safe here, and they have been rewarded for it, it is a blockbuster.

Your kid will leave the theater thinking about the dancing candlestick, not about how we love or don’t love.

Some researchers have suggested that the story of Beauty and the Beast was influenced by a true story, that of  Petrus Gonsalvus, who was born in the sixteenth century on the island of Tenerife in Spain. Discovered by French explorers, he was brought to the court of King Henry II of France as a kind of freak.

Gonsalvus suffered from a disease called Hypertrichosis,  which causes an abnormal growth of hair on the face and other body parts. Brought to Paris, he was welcomed under the protection of the king and married a beautiful Parisian woman named Catherine, who loved him despite his disfiguration.

Apart from the great acting performance from Watson, there was really nothing about the Disney movie that will stick with you.

Young children will love it,I think, it was very warm and ingenious in parts. And is not really scary at all.

I was put off at learning in the theater that it was a musical, like the play,  and with some of the same music, replete with dancing cabinets and table lamps and clocks and happy, dumb, extremely gullible and hapless villagers (the same ones, I think, who went after Frankenstein with torches). In fairy tales, the mobs never seem to know what they are doing.

The movie contained Disney’s first openly gay moment, but it went by so fast I doubt I would even have even noticed it if they weren’t making such a big fuss about it.

It was not a great movie. The film’s creators went for sappy, they didn’t expand this venerable story, they shrank it. But it was not boring or disappointing either. And it is  a huge success, expected to pass the $500 million box office mark in just two weeks. You can’t knock that.

I know when I was a child I often wondered what I would do if I encountered a beast and fell in love, or was a  beast who wished to be loved. I didn’t think such a thing was possible, either way.

I admit I have often felt like a beast, ugly inside and out, and in my own mind I have thought of the story of me and Maria as my own version of the story.  I felt that strongly in the theater.

I wet my bed for many years, and always felt ugly and unlikable, have always been an outsider, and never got the girl.

I always felt my body to be somewhat disgusting, even revolting. Because I never imagined anyone loving me,  not too many people did. The Beast story understood the great truth about love: if you do not dare to love yourself, no one else will take the chance.

The therapists call this self-loathng, the beast loathes himself in every incarnation of the tale. An interesting twist to this venerable story is that the beast is not really a beast at all, but an ordinary, troubled,  man whose appearance has been  radically transformed. The real person is hidden a way, even from him. The question for Belle is how deeply into his soul can we see?

When I met Maria, I could not imagine she would ever love me. I invited her up on the farm porch one day to tell her I had “feelings” for her, expecting her to run away screaming. She did get up and walk away, she didn’t say a word. But she wasn’t screaming of visibly disgusted. And she didn’t slap me across the face. I took heart from that.

I was very surprised to learn that Maria sometimes feels the same way about herself. Sometimes, people are so busy hiding theri vulnerabilities that we rarely realize how much we have in common with others.

This, I suppose, is why the story has endured for so long and is still to compelling to people. It raises questions almost all of us ask about ourselves all the time. I have learned that I am not the only in life who feels vulnerable and difficult to love. I sometimes think everyone does. Like Plato said, everyone is fighting a harder battle than me.

I was glad I went to see it the movie. So was Maria.

I can’t imagine many people who go and see the story – mangled, of course from the original – will not find that it touches some part of their lives and fantasies.

24 March

Izzy And The Wool

by Jon Katz
Izzy And The Wool

Sunday, Maria and I drive to Central Vermont in the morning to pick up the first wool from the Romney sheep we got last year. The Romneys were in rough shape but I think their wool was beautiful and Maria will set it as yarn and roving next week. Sunday afternoon, we return as Chloe goes to live with Treasure Wilkinson in nearby Shushan, N.Y. A big day in the life of the farm. (Tonight, we are hoping to go see Beauty And The Beast in 3-D).

24 March

Red And My Life

by Jon Katz
Red And My Life

The great dogs do not disrupt our lives, they simply enter them and join our lives. Once, I went to the dentist and left Red home. They sent me back to get him. When they call to remind me of my appointment, they remind me to bring Red. He lays down outside of the examining room and waits for me.

His many girlfriends and admirers come to visit with him. Tiffany and Red are good friends, I am no stranger to dental work, thanks to my loving grandmother, who had a Mom and Mop store and saved me candy of all kinds.

Red, like any spirit dog, has entered my life for a purpose, he helped me to open up to new experience, he was my magical helper when we gave up the first Bedlam Farm and moved here, he has guided me into my work at the Mansion. He is a part of me now, and I am a part of him. We don’t either of us make much fuss about it, it is just the way it is.

Red and I rarely cuddle, and I almost never touch him. Once a day, in the morning, he puts his head on my knee and we talk a bit. But he is always there, anywhere where I go. I am lucky to have another spirit dog. And in the dentist chair, when I get edgy, I turn around to see how he is. He is always watching me to see how I am. I suppose I am part of his therapy work.

24 March

Fate: Proud Of Herself

by Jon Katz
Proud Of Herself

Fate is very proud of herself and happy to pose in front of her sheep, who she loves to be around and work with in her own peculiar and quite unique way. The sheep have absolutely no fear of her, nor does she challenge them or nip them when they blow her off, but she has the best time in the world hanging out with them and running around them in wide and great circles.

We have decided to let Fate be Fate. She loves to sit in front of the sheep and look pleased with herself. We are pleased with her, she is not like the other children, but the is quite wonderful in her own way.

24 March

The Viral Baby: Doing Good At Six Months Of Age

by Jon Katz
The Viral Baby

It occurred to me over the past few weeks that Robin is doing a great deal of good for people at her very tender young age. It is not about being adorable, there is something more powerful going on. She has come out of the fog to remind us that life is good.

Robin has also brought an unexpected and surprising balance to my blog, my writing and my readers at a time when I am uncharacteristically taking some risks and focusing at times on the elderly as well as immigrants facing injustice, especially terror and expulsion.

To me, those are important subjects to write about, but I am also aware those other voices which say every day: “where are the cute photos of dogs and donkeys? We can get news elsewhere.”

Robin has become the most popular thing on my blog, her likes and shares are even surpassing Red, who has a lot of admirers.

I am inundated with messages thanking me for posting images of her (they come from my daughter Emma) at a time when people need to see the energy and promise and joy that comes with the beginning of life.

Almost unfathomably, I feel Robin and I are in a dialogue about life that I am only just beginning to grasp. “Jon, I want to thank you for posting images of your granddaughter. She is adorable, but that is beside the point. She lifts up and reminds me to be positive and do good.”

Robin is doing good, not a simple task for a sixth-month old child.

I see great beauty and joy in the faces of the Mansion residents, but there is also struggle, loss and sometimes death. It is hard for many Americans to see images about the elderly, I have broken through that barrier and have come to see their beauty and compassion. I thank my photography for that.

This is a shock to me, as are so many interesting things about life, the sudden appearance of Robin as a powerful tool to uplift the spirits of people. Babies are, as a rule, cute and endearing. And all grandparents love their new  grandchildren. But as message after message points out, there is something about her that captures the glory and promise of life. And challenges depression and argument.

Robin has become a Greek Chorus, an angel sent to remind us that life is wonderful as well as troubling, full of discovery and possibility.

I talked to my daughter Emma last night, and I said Robin has become something beyond her own cuteness, her smile and enthusiasm are making an awful lot of people feel good when they get up in the morning or go online.  I asked her if she knew that, she said she did.

This is a special gift, especially now, when so many people feel anxious or angry or worried about our country. It is a way of expressing values without argument. It is a political thing, without being political.

I am always learning about life. I was  surprised at the sudden emergence in my writing and on my blog of people on the very opposite ends of life.  It is not what I generally write about, or wish to write about. Some people don’t like it. Yesterday I put up a photo of Herman before his death, and there were, of course, the usual stunningly stupid and insensitive messages on Facebook about the photo.

“I don’t want to see pictures like that too much,” wrote Jane from Ohio,”I like the farm photos, I would never let anyone take a photo of me when I was so old and sick.” I simply deleted her message, and she went away. It was offensive to me, and by now I have the hide of a rhinoceroses.

I am honored to ask the residents of the Mansion to let me take their photos, because so many people see the beauty in them, the residents see it themselves.

I think it bothered me because I used to think that way myself, I rarely took pictures of the elderly, at the other side of life from Robin. I saw my role as to uplift, not enlighten. Now I try to do both.  Now,  these faces seem especially beautiful to me, they have so much character and feeling in them, they pop up among the images of dogs, donkeys, landscapes and old barns.

Even in the shadow of death, Herman’s gentleness and kindness shone through and people saw it. And that is my purpose, to show people like the Mansion residents and refugees as human beings, not stereotypes or taboos.

Emma too has grasped this, I think.

Robin has brought us closer together in more than one way, she was always aloof from my work and blog and photography, I think it was quite detached from her life, somewhat of a puzzle. That feeling is gone, she understands me in a different way, and that Robin is important to people, and like me, she wants to do good in any way she can.

I love Robin, but the big news for me is my strengthened relationship with my daughter, who I love so dearly and have missed in my life.

So we are partners in this, she grants me permission to share these images and she knows what they mean to me, and perhaps, to many of you. And she is just, if not more, as uplifted by Robin than anyone.  I am knocked over by this new thing, my family come together to do good in this surprising and completely unexpected way. I call Robin the viral baby, if I had that smile, I would sell a million books.

I need to be careful not to exploit Robin or project any feelings or ideas onto her that she is far too young to have.

Emma would not permit that and I would not consciously do it. But I hope that one day Robin will look back on this post and know that she made a lot of people feel stronger and more hopeful for reasons her grandfather is just beginning to explore.

Beyond my own feelings for my first granddaughter, and I am always sorting them out, there is the idea that I want other people to feel the way I do when I see these photos. Another way of doing good.

It is not about cute, it is about the message in those eyes, which says to me, “life is a gift, full of possibilities and glory, as well as sadness and despair.” We get the sadness and despair every minute of every day, it comes through the air. But news like this is not considered news.

We rarely see this message of promise. Robin, at six months old, is full of excitement and wonder, she seems to love almost every minute of her life. I believe she is speaking to me in these messages, and inspiring me to do good and be hopeful. It is our way of talking, as far as we are from one another.

It is a pleasure to share that idea with the world. The images are sustaining and grounding to me, they give me faith and hope, and I will need both to do the work In needed to do, as will we all. My gratitude and love to Robin and her mother.

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