On Billy Joel
It’s time to talk about Billy Joel.
I have a hard time with Billy Joel. On the one hand, he’s had a long career of writing and singing a lot of catchy songs that I find pleasant to listen to. And, for a lot of those songs, I can enjoy them unambivalently: “Downeaster Alexa”, “For the Longest Time”, “Storm Front”, and especially “River of Dreams”… nice job. No notes.
And it’s true that a lot of his songs are very Boomer. This is not a quality that I look for in a song, but I can’t deny that he comes by it honestly. We all belong to one generation or another, and if it shows up in our art, then it does, and there’s no point complaining about it. So when he gives us “We Didn’t Start the Fire” or “I Go to Extremes” or “My Life” or “Goodnight Saigon”, that’s all right, I can take it as it comes.
My big problem with Billy Joel is the misogyny that often shows up in his lyrics. His songs, in aggregate, suggest to me a specific kind of whore-madonna dichotomy in his portrayals of women, where women can be callous, man-eating bad girls who it’s dangerous to get involved with, as in the songs “She’s Always a Woman” or “Big Shot”. Or they can be innocent good girls who need to be kept on a pedestal until they’re ready for the dangerous love of notorious streetwise tough guy Billy Joel, as in “Only the Good Die Young”, “That’s Not Her Style”, “You May Be Right”, and “Uptown Girl”. Even “Tell Her About It”, which isn’t actually all that bad, participates in this to some extent: “A nice girl wouldn’t tell you what you should do”.
But even those aren’t the worst of it. I didn’t mention “An Innocent Man”, the #notallmen of rock songs. And I didn’t mention “Just the Way You Are”, in which the singer says *the most horrible things* to a woman whom he claims to love and we’re supposed to hear it as romantic. It’s just gross.
So that’s where I was with Billy Joel for a long time. But recently I figured out something else about him: Billy Joel is no damn nostalgist.
My time as a Legion of Super-Heroes fan has taught me to distrust and disdain nostalgism. It’s not a positive force. It eats creativity and blocks necessary progress. (Note that when I talk about nostalgia, I don’t mean appreciating things about the past, or having affection for the cultural artifacts of the past. I mean thinking things were better Back Then and that we should go back to that.)
One of Billy Joel’s biggest hits was “It’s Still Rock’n’Roll to Me”, a song which takes the position, so far as I can parse it, that, while the current music scene may be shallow and crass, it isn’t actually any different from what it used to be. “Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways / It’s still rock’n’roll to me.” This is around the same time that Bob Seger’s reaction to the same conditions was, “Don’t try to take me to a disco / You’ll never even get me out on the floor / In ten minutes I’d be late for the door / I like that old time rock’n’ roll.” Of the two attitudes, I’ll take Joel’s.
Or look at “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, which is obviously an easily mockable song, and certainly one in which Joel indulges in a lot of old memories. It’s easy to look at what gets listed and what doesn’t and conclude that Joel thinks that about seven times as many things happened from ’46-’69 as happened in the ’70s and ’80s. But let’s not forget the basic point of the song: yeah, there are problems now, but there were problems Back Then too, and it sure looks like there are going to continue being problems, so we’d better deal with it. Again: that’s not nostalgia.
And, finally, we have “Keeping the Faith”, which ties it all together. First, it’s an *extremely* Boomer song, one that describes teenage experience in the ’50s/’60s in detail, and gives them religious significance. Second, it manages to *not* participate in the misogyny mentioned above: the lyric “I thought I was the Duke of Earl / When I made it with a red-haired girl / In a Chevrolet / Oh yeah / We were keeping the faith” may have a rite-of-passage element to it that isn’t great, but it does cast the girl as an equal participant in the enterprise at least. And, most of all, Joel gives us the concluding thought that, no matter how good a time he had Back Then and how much he likes to think about it, “the good old days weren’t always good / And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”
In short, Billy Joel is a land of contrasts. Thank you very much.
On the Melendy Family
Elizabeth Enright’s four books about the Melendy family are among my favourites of all time.
They’re kids books, written in the ’40s and ’50s, about the idyllic experiences of four kids (Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver) who live in New York City (in the first book, The Saturdays (TS)) and then move out to the country (in the second book, The Four-Story Mistake (4SM)), and about how their family changes over time (third and fourth books, Then There Were Five (TW5) and Spiderweb for Two: A Melendy Maze (S42)).
I recently conceived the idea of drawing a map of the area where the Melendys live in books 2-4. I just want to. Partly to see if I can; partly because as far as I can tell nobody else has done it. So I looked over the books and I don’t think it’s possible to do in a completely consistent way. There are some details that Enright provides that are… not *explicitly* contradictory, but close enough as to be unworkable as such. (Obviously, Enright’s priority was to tell good stories, not to enable my fanwankery.) But we’ll see what we can do. (I’ll try to avoid spoilers.)
Some context: the Melendys live in a big house called the Four-Story Mistake. It’s out in the countryside, near the towns of Carthage, Braxton, and Eldred, somewhere in New York State. There are real-life towns in New York named Carthage and Eldred, but they aren’t anywhere near each other, and real-life Carthage is too far away from New York City to make all this train travel they’re doing so casual. So I’m guessing this Carthage has nothing to do with that Carthage.
(I might want to do a smaller-scale map of the Four-Story Mistake grounds, and also a floor plan of the house itself. But for now let’s stick with the wider area.)
More details of these towns: Braxton is the biggest one, the most modern, impersonal and noisy. Mostly, for our purposes, it’s where the train station is. It’s close enough to bike to to see a movie. Carthage is the closest to the Four-Story Mistake; it’s a friendly kind of village. We know the most about it; it’s got two butchers and a jeweler and the school and the bank and a traffic cop and a bus. We never see Eldred; we only hear it being mentioned. Probably the smallest of the three.
One of the problems I run into when mapping this stuff is the issue of crossings. The Melendy kids are always wandering around in the woods. Fine. But there are roads in this part of the country, and Enright doesn’t describe the kids crossing these roads. Does that mean they didn’t, or does it mean she just didn’t mention it? Similarly: one of the most important features of the Four-Story Mistake property is the brook that runs through it. There are times where the kids go places and it’s not mentioned how, or whether, they cross the brook. Maybe they don’t! But if they don’t, then that has implications for where everything is in relation to the brook.
Okay, let’s get into it: the first we see of the Four-Story Mistake is when the family moves in. They arrive at the Braxton train station and take a cab to the new house. Father says the house is “miles away […] in a valley.” The road there is described as being straight, with no turns described. It is mentioned, later on, that the nearest village is three miles away. (4SM c1)
Next chapter: Rush explores and finds the brook. The important thing here is that none of the kids suspected the existence of the brook before this. (City kids. See a valley and don’t deduce a river.) Which means that they didn’t cross it on the way in; it’s on the other side of the house. Later, Father and Randy look out of the four windows of the cupola atop the house, and we get a description of the views in all four directions. It’s quite helpful, but it also causes us a problem, as we’ll see:
north: “the only long [view]”… faraway up the “shallow and wide” valley, trees, fences, the brook, and, eventually, a village, which Father says is “Carthage, three miles away”
south: “all you can see is spruce branches and the weather vane on the stable roof”
east: “all you can see is the brook and the woods on the hill”
west: “all you can see is the road winding back over another hill, through more woods”, “the road you traveled yesterday”
Okay, there’s some excellent stuff in here. First and most important: Carthage is three miles north and therefore is also the closest village. That’s tremendously helpful, and is repeated later in the book. No matter what other problems we run into, we will always be able to rely on the Four-Story Mistake being three miles south of Carthage. (Note also it says “up” the valley.)
Also, it’s confirmed that the brook is on the east side of the house. Which… it’s not the way I pictured it, but it’s unambiguous. And, finally, the road they traveled on yesterday is on the west. Sounds like it leads away to the west, doesn’t it? Not that it’s to their west, and parallel to the horizon, but rather leading west to the horizon? I’m going to suggest that what they see is the dirt road that they turned off onto from the main road, which is really more like what we’d think of as a driveway, however long, and that the main road isn’t visible from the cupola. Because it doesn’t really make sense the other way. (Enright does use the word “driveway” in the series, but is more likely to refer to such thoroughfares as “roads”.) This works, actually, because the description of the family driving in in the first chapter has them cresting a wooded hill before descending to the house. So, that’s fine: the hill blocks the view of the main road.
It does suggest to us that the road from Braxton is a north-south road, parallel to the brook. So is Braxton to the north or the south? Well, if it’s to the north, it must be pretty close to Carthage… but they didn’t see Carthage on the drive from Braxton. Let’s say, provisionally, that it’s to the south.
(I came into this exercise with no clear idea where Braxton is.)
A couple of chapters later, the Melendys get bikes, and Randy, Rush, and Mona take an experimental ride to Carthage. It’s described as a straight highway on which they swerve to the right at one point, and that puts them on Carthage’s main street, where Randy crashes her bike into the back of a parked bus. (Detail: Mr Wheelwright, the Carthage traffic cop, and his wife live in a house on that main street.) So that’s all right: Braxton could still be north on that highway and they could have missed Carthage on the drive in because you have to take that turnoff to see it. And I have the idea that it works better to have Braxton up that way.
(While we’re on the subject… how is Carthage big enough to have a traffic cop and a bus? It’s a village in rural New York in the early 1940s. My explanation: traffic cops are the 1940s equivalents of stoplights, and the bus is a like a Greyhound or something, not a local bus.)
A few chapters later, the Melendy kids put on a show, and some of their friends take a cab up from New York City to see it. One of the results of the show is that Mona auditions for, and eventually gets, a part in a radio drama in New York City, for which she’ll have to travel down there twice every week. This is one of the reasons why I don’t think the Carthage in the books is the real-life Carthage: the real-life Carthage is up by Syracuse and is about, like, five hours away by train. You’re not going to make that trip every few days for a radio show, and you’re not going to take a cab over all that distance to see some kids put on a play. The fictional Carthage must be closer to New York City. (4SM c7, 9)
Later on, the three eldest Melendys go for a skate on the brook. I was paying close attention to the prepositions here. Well, let me quote the passages: “‘What do you say we go exploring down the brook […]?'” “‘Why, you know perfectly well we’ll just end up in Carthage,'” “‘The other way, then,'” “They had to walk down the banks at the side of the frozen cascade, and then they took to the brook again.” It’s ambiguous, but it does seem like Carthage is upstream from the Four-Story Mistake. Anyway, the only thing they find downstream is a nice old couple called the Peppers, whose house is not so inaccessible that Father can’t come and drive the kids home from there. (4SM c9)
The only other detail from 4SM that we can pick out is that there’s a farmer named Peterson who lives “up the valley”, which seems to mean toward Carthage.
In the second chapter of TW5, Randy and Rush go on a scrap drive. They hook up the horse to the carriage and travel down the road in search of metal for the troops. They make three stops, and meet new friends at each one: the Addisons, Mr. Titus, and Mark Herron (and his mean cousin Oren).
The first question is, what road is this that they’re on and where does it go? Well, Mark and the Addison kids don’t go to school in Carthage; they go to the District School near Eldred. Okay, so, clearly they’re not on the road north to Carthage; maybe they’re going south on the same road. Or maybe there’s a turnoff or something. It’s not clear. (We do get more information on this later.)
But this stretch of road does open up quite a bit of the world to us. Mark knows lots of interesting spots in the woods where they can go and have adventures. Mr. Titus has lots of fishing holes where he and Oliver can go. Now, most of these places are just… places that are around there somewhere… that can populate a map, but that we don’t have explicit directions to. But there are some that have a bit of that kind of detail.
Originally I thought that this road they’re on led to Eldred. It would make some kind of sense. But I’m not sure it’s quite right. It might work, and it’s simple, but we also need to make room for all this wilderness; I wonder if it makes more sense to have Eldred further south, accessible by some side roads or something. I also thought of putting it south of the Four-Story Mistake on the highway. Near the Peppers! But this makes the whole question about where Mark and the Addisons go to school a little difficult, as it’s tough to figure out how that’s closer than Carthage. As for the scrap-drive road, I’ll spoil the surprise: there’s a chapter in S42 that establishes clearly that it leads west from the highway that goes north to Carthage. Good: let’s call it the Addisons’ road.
In fact, let’s skip to that chapter in Spiderweb for Two now. In it, Oliver is following a mysterious poem that leads him to a hidden secret. The poem tells him to head west from the Four-Story Mistake and describes the landmarks he’ll see on the way. The poem assumes he’s going to slog through some wilderness and come out on a road which (unknown to him) will take him past the Addisons’. Oliver gets off course a bit, though, and veers south and gets lost, and meets a kindly old lady, Miss Bishop, who puts him on the road and tells him how to get back home.
It’s a very problematic chapter for us. Some details:
– Oliver walks due west from the house and, as far as the description of his day is concerned, doesn’t encounter a road until he leaves Miss Bishop’s place
– Miss Bishop’s directions for how Oliver should get home are that he should walk east(ish) on the road in front of her house, and when that road meets another road, he should turn right and it’ll take him right there
– Oliver is surprised when he sees the Addisons’ mailbox (which must be the same one that Rush and Randy saw), because he’s used to coming to the Addisons’ by their back way, which is shorter to get to
– Miss Bishop lives in a place called Corn Hollow. Not sure what that is; if it’s a little hamlet or the name of Miss Bishop’s house. Let’s assume it’s her house; it’s not referred to any other time and we don’t see anything else around there. But it’s close enough to Carthage and Eldred that she refers to both of them to orient Oliver
Okay. So the first problem is, how does Oliver manage to get over to Miss Bishop’s without crossing a road? Because the Four-Story Mistake, as best we can tell, is between a road and a brook, both running north-south; it’s east of the road and west of the brook. You can’t go west from the place without crossing the road.
Unless! What if the road comes south from Carthage, passes the entrance to the Four-Story Mistake property, and then abruptly swings around to the northwest? Miss Bishop’s directions to Oliver still work. It means we have to come up with some kind of elaborate side roads to allow Father to drive to the Peppers’ to pick up Randy, Rush, and Mona, but it would work. (We might have to fudge things around to make it make sense that Mark and the Addison kids go to the school near Eldred instead of the one in Carthage, but that’s doable.)
Or we could just have the road go north-south like is sensible, and assume that Enright didn’t bother to describe Oliver crossing it. Or it didn’t occur to her that the road would be there.
The second problem is, if Miss Bishop lives on the Addisons’ road, why didn’t Randy and Rush stop there when they were collecting scrap? Explanation one: they just didn’t, that’s all, mostly because Enright hadn’t thought her up yet. Explanation two: Miss Bishop lives on a different fork of the Addisons’ road, such that Randy and Rush could get on the road without going past her house.
The third problem is that Oliver and Mr. Titus are great friends, and Oliver hangs out with Mr. Titus all the time. They’re always wandering all over the countryside fishing. And Mr. Titus lives on the Addisons’ road. So how come Oliver could be so unfamiliar with Miss Bishop’s part of the Addisons’ road?
That one we actually do have a partial solution for. Let’s say that the back lane that Oliver’s used to using to go to the Addisons’ place goes past them to Mr. Titus’s place too. That makes sense, doesn’t it? And we can also say that Mr. Titus’s favourite fishing spots are all further west, or, anyway, not near Corn Hollow (which has no nearby brook, as Oliver takes note of as he’s wandering around lost).
So let’s take stock of the roads we’re dealing with in the area. We’ve got the highway south from Carthage, which runs past the Four-Story Mistake and then either continues south or swings northwest after that. Then we also have
– the Addisons’ road, which runs west from that, and which has the Addisons’ and Mr. Titus’s front entrances on it (and, also, Meeker’s farm). Note that the Addisons’ front entrance must be basically due west from the Four-Story Mistake, but the Addisons’ road can’t start at that latitude; it must start north of there, or Oliver would have run into it too soon
– the back lane to the Addisons’, which probably also has an entrance to Mr. Titus’s property on it, and is easily accessible from the highway
– a fork off of the Addisons’ road, which has Miss Bishop’s house on it, and which intersects the highway somewhere north of the Four-Story Mistake
That’s a lot of roads to all come together at about the same place in the middle of the countryside, and I basically don’t believe it. There’s no occasion to have so many roads, and I prefer the simpler explanations for how it all works.
There’s another suggestive passage in TW5 where Rush and Randy go to Meeker’s farm to help with a fire. As they’re traveling, they are passed by the Eldred fire engine. This sounds helpful, as, if the fire engine has to come up behind them, it means that Eldred must be south of the Four-Story Mistake on the same road as Carthage and Braxton. But when it happens, Rush and Randy are on the lane into the farm, so it doesn’t really say anything about where Eldred is.
The last geographical description of consequence comes in the final chapter of S42. The directions Randy and Oliver get are to “follow Highway 22, proceed, and take the next turn right, beyond the cows of Herman Heidt. Travel a mile and you will see a Northern name and a tall tree.” They do so, starting in Carthage. It’s clear that they’re familiar with the roads involved: both Highway 22 and their turnoff to the right. For one thing, Randy refers to “the sight of Herman Heidt’s repulsive cows,” and since when does Randy think cows are gross? Must be some history here.
We haven’t heard of Highway 22 before. It’s not really satisfactory for it to be the road south to the Four-Story Mistake; for one thing, they know that road too well. I’d much rather have it be the road from Carthage to Braxton. (Which actually is the same road. But this is how country roads work: they change names as they go from place to place.) It’s one that the Melendys take a lot, but not all the time, and the modernity of Braxton goes along well with the modernity of the house that Randy and Oliver find there.
So, that’s simple; from Carthage, go out to the highway, go north, and take the first right. A mile east, and you’re at the house in the clue, Villa Borealis.
Most of what’s left is various spots in the wilderness that Mark or Mr. Titus introduce the kids to, and they can pretty much be fit in anywhere. Mr. Titus tells a story about a place called Abbot’s Slough, for instance, which is near the house where he lived when he was a child, and is also in this area somewhere; is it the same house he lives in now? We don’t know for sure, but it sure could be, and I think we might as well assume it. Other of his locales: Baggot’s Pasture, Squaw Dam, Powder Hill.
Mark knows the woods for miles around his place, and takes the Melendys to a place where blackberries grow, an old graveyard back of his farm near a burned-down church that was struck by lightning, a hill where arrowheads can be found, a quarry where one can swim, a cave that’s not too far from Steinkraus’ farm and the house of Mr. Cutmold the auctioneer, and a backwoods still frequented by several villains of the region.
So that’s all the information, and we can start putting the map together now. This is what I came up with; it may not be exactly right, but I think any map based on these books has to end up looking something like this:
Been a while, hasn’t it?
Back with more soon.
I haven’t posted here much because I’ve run into some hiccups in my writing. I’m still doing it, but not as regularly as I’d like. I wonder if anyone would object if I started using this space to express some of my thoughts on the Toronto Blue Jays, about whom I haven’t blogged in years.
BTF Problems 2
BTF Forums Problem
2014/3/17 Superhero of the Day: Phyla-Vell
I missed a few days but I’m back now; hope you were able to get by without me.
I am Interviewed about Superhero Fiction
If you haven’t already heard about this from me via some other method, there’s an interview with me on the subject of superhero fiction over at A Trout in the Milk. Check it out!
2013/11/25 Superhero of the Day: the Patriot