Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Eve Mash-Up

I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little blog, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”

This has been a dark holiday season. Does anyone feel “Merry”? We stand helpless witness to the collapse of the American economy and its ripple effects worldwide. The joy of gift giving itself was darkened by the death of 34-year-old Jdimytai Damour, a seasonal worker at Walmart who was trampeled to death when he opened the doors on Black Friday.

It’s as though Pandora revisited the earth, undetected, with another box of ills to punish us anew for that primal theft of fire.

When Pandora’s First Box was opened, and all the ills and toils descended on humankind the first time, Hope was caught under the lid, and came out later to help.

If I could wrap up one thing for my extended family and friends this Christmas it would be: Courage. We will all need quite a dose of it in the coming year.

With the massive layoffs and spiraling down of our micro and macroeconomies, life as we know it will change. But it will still be life. And that’s what’s important.


“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
It came without packages, boxes or bags!"
And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
‘Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.
‘Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!’”


And when things get tough, remember that fairness is not an attribute of life. Here’s a perfect Christmas example. The character Scrooge is synonymous with misanthrope. But “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” The redeemed Scrooge “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” So why isn't "Scrooge" synonymous with "Mr. Christmas?" Tough legacy for a character.


A small gift from the New Yorker cartoon bank site: a look at the Ghosts of Covers past, from decades when others faced tough times.

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate.

I am off to Chicago and Springfield, Illinois for New Year’s, to appropriately usher in the year of Lincoln, and the historic first year of Obama’s presidency. See you all in January.

Monday, December 22, 2008

QQF: Sleek Wreaths and Evergreen Trees

As Christmas decorations go, I have a soft spot in my heart for the white/silver variety, planted long ago when I saw the windows of Saks as a kid. The theme was “Christmas Across the Country.” Each window showed a different family’s holiday: a farm family, Southern family, people in Florida, San Francisco, and New York. The New York window was a duplex penthouse where everything was white—-carpets, couches, drapes, a glass table, Mom in a Jean Harlow white satin robe, and a white Christmas tree with hot pink decorations. It was the coolest, most innately sophisticated thing I had ever seen.

This installed a yearning for what I believed would be the joy of actually living in that white penthouse in that satin robe. That vision was reinforced by incidental set design in the film Holiday Inn, a classic family favorite. The nightclub scenes have silver artificial trees with tinsel where was annually swept away by Fred Astaire in his exquisite tuxedo, and his partner in sequined gown. Again the sophistication was heady and tantalizing.

We were a natural tree family ourselves. The scent of the real tree was a pretty good consolation for the reality of my suburban house as dreams of the penthouse danced in my head.

The penthouse is still in dreamland, though as an adult I face the fake/real decorating dilemma, and then “natural” fake or stylized.

I decided a little of each: a forties nightclub-worthy wreath for the door, with a real tree inside. Fantasy and reality are both best served with each other. Keeps things grounded.

Here is one of Fred’s great dance numbers from Holiday Inn, “Easy to Dance With,” with those big, gorgeous trees.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Ave Atque Vale, Avery



At a time that sees Doubt in the midst of the “Christmas season,” a special man gave one last gift to the people at large whom he served: the beauty of his own Mass of Christian Burial. Some lives are replete with gifts from cradle to grave—-such was the life of Avery Cardinal Dulles.

As the weekday tourists “doing” Christmas in New York entered St. Patrick’s, which sits across from Rockefeller Center and Saks, they found the Gothic cathedral alive with one of the most important rites of the Church: the repose of a soul of the recently departed.

The choir sang a choral prelude of Lacrymosa from the Mozart Requiem, and the lovely Protestant hymn, “Abide with Me.”

Then the organ sounded the powerful D minor downbeat of the great Faure Requiem as the line of over 100 priests, bishops, and cardinals began the solemn, two column procession down the side aisle and up the grand main aisle, passing the white-draped coffin of the remains of their brother priest.

The Mass was all the more poignant for the presence of Cardinal Dulles’s family, the living members of generations of one of the country’s great Protestant families of service. Dulles’s father was Secretary of State to Eisenhower (a great-grandfather was Secretary of State to Benjamin Harrison, and great uncle Robert Lansing was same to Woodrow Wilson); his uncle Allen Walsh Dulles was director of the CIA from 1953 to 1961. In another type of service, his grandfather was a Presbyterian minister.

Cardinal Egan’s homily touched on the reality that the Presbyterian-raised, agnostic young man who converted to Catholicism, then entered the Society of Jesus and was ordained ten years later, was not easy for this family to accept. But clearly this Dulles scion had a destiny not formed by human lineage, as echoed in the second reading from Romans: “None of us lives as his own master and none of us dies as his own master. While we live we are responsible to the Lord, and when we die we die as his servants.”

At the end of Mass came the prayer of commendation for the soul of Avery Cardinal Dulles. Cardinal Egan invoked the cathedral’s tradition of singing the chant Salve Regina a capella before the final prayer. Then the procession began down the main aisle, to the enormous bronze 5th avenue doors that were opened wide, framing Rockefeller Center’s Atlas with the world on his shoulders across the street. The hymn was a funeral text to the tune Melita, which is the Navy Hymn, in honor of Dulles’s naval service in World War 11

The pallbearers raised the casket to their shoulders, and walked down the aisle to the open doors, with the family walking behind them. In one of the finer moments in Catholic/Protestant relations, the church broke into applause.

As the coffin passed me, I was filled with admiration for this life that started in August of 1918, just days after the Battle of Amiens, and gave what he had—an exceptional intellect and generosity—to the service of God. He contracted polio when in his 20s, which came back to cripple him in old age, finally taking away his ability to speak, but a writer he was to the end, writing a farewell to his brother Jesuits on his 90th birthday.

The pews emptied out behind the family, as the coffin made its way to the hearse on 5th avenue, amid the Christmas wreaths and garland and colored lights of the season.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

QQF: Mr. Monk and the Kick-Ass Promo


USA’s Monk came out early with its Christmas episode, the day after Thanksgiving. The episode was so-so, but the real holiday gift was the 30-second promo for the new season as Monk, p.i. It was a pitch-perfect mimic of the Magnum, p.i. opening.

Starting with the declarative downbeats of that familiar four-note opening, it completely captures the spirit of '80s cops shows—part T.J. Hooker, part Chips, with a little of Simon and Simon--and Magnum full out. The clip choice from the last six seasons is brilliant: Monk in the Ferrari when he briefly medicates for his depression; Stottlemeyer in organ grinder’s fez when the only person in the locked room with the dead body was the monkey; Natalie as Vanna White; Randy rolling in his desk chair with an esprit de Faceman from The A-Team. Whoever put it together is a first-class tv watcher.

Monk is going into its last season next year. I’m a fan of the series, through its different eras, though I prefer Sharona to Natalie. I wonder if they will solve the mystery of Trudy’s murder before they go.

The Sherlock Holmes angle in any guise is always interesting---we all want to solve the puzzles of ours lives, from the small details to the big questions. But what I really like about it is the premise of this painfully damaged man—who gave up for three years and didn’t leave his house—and then reconstructed his life as best he could. I think that kind of personal struggle resonates with many people.

The Christmas episode, "Mr. Monk and the Miracle," has to do with a fountain in a monastery that seems to be healing people. Of course its specific power is disproved, although Stottlemeyer insists that since drinking it he feels renewed.

SPOILER

Natalie keeps encouraging Monk to drink, since he is in pain all the time. Someone posted on a tvblog that Monk drinking from the fountain is one of the show’s most poignant moments.

But we don’t see that. Monk goes to the fountain and collects the water in a glass, and then just stands there as it goes to black, leaving it completely ambiguous whether he drinks it or not. Sometimes we need something from a story, and so we project it. That’s the interactive part of tv watching, no computer needed.

Friday, December 5, 2008

QQF: The Holiday Windows of Bergdorf Goodman



Midtown is decked out in its holiday finery. The TREE has been duly lit, and Cartier has wrapped itself in its annual bow, which is now a shocking LED red, instead of its classy velvet ribbon of old.

Depending on how your holiday equilibrium calibrates, the decorations can lift you up, or bring you down. The store windows in particular are astonishing flights of imagination and technology, or soulless expressions of capitalism at its most crass.

I try to embrace the best of the intentions, the beauty of the lights, the merriment of elves and Santa’s workshop as I walk up Fifth against the tide of tourists descending to the Apple Store.

One scene that I find myself returning to are the windows at Bergdorf's, the 57th street side. They are a vision of chic, Victorian attitude in smashing red, black, and white plaster.

Charles Dickens’s head surveys the “Ways to Say 'Season’s Greetings'” tableau, as he should. Edward Gorey-like sketches of buildings, bridges, ships and stairs set the backdrop for the hands with quill pens, old typewriters, and vintage phones of this stylized world, all symbols of communicating the tidings of the season.

One model is wearing a fabulous black princess-style coat with cloche hat, another has a stunning shag dress, with elbow-length black velvet gloves. In a flash of whimsy, another model has a sash that says Messenger, a translation from the Greek for angel.

Such a grown-up vision of the Season. I’m so glad that someone sees it this way. That makes me feel merry and bright, as I walk along the park, and into the night.





(photos by Dan Cross)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Rockettes: High Kicks In Solidarity with their Bollywood Sisters


The shocking news from Mumbai coincided with our national day of Thanks-giving. It’s true every day that people are suffering at home and abroad. But this was an extreme juxtaposition between the formal day we give thanks for family, friends, and the beauty of this nation, and people being individually murdered by unspecified terrorists. It became even more heart-wrenching when we learned of the death of the Virginia dad and the Brooklyn Rabbi and his wife.

Parallel to this shocking situation, and not related to it, was the AP reporting on Thanksgiving eve that “The FBI has warned New York area law enforcement of a ‘plausible but unsubstantiated’ al Qaeda suicide bomb attack against the area’s commuter rail systems over the holiday.”

This was the backdrop to my Thanksgiving pilgrimage to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

The first practical issue: do I get on the subway? Should the family get on the Long Island Rail Road to come in? We briefly thought the answer to both would be “no.” But that feeling of “they win if we change our lives” kicked in, and so we partook of mass transit.

The Christmas Show was reimagined last year by Linda Haberman for its 75th anniversary. I only saw it one other time, somewhere in the nineties, but it was clear that she brought the experience into the 21st century and completely paid off on the word “SPECTACULAR” above the lowly “show.” It’s hipper, sleeker, and more WOW. It is a thrilling ninety minutes of spirited spectacle, from Santa’s 3-D sleigh ride into town, to an amazing number with the Rockettes on a doubledecker bus that really looks like it’s barreling through the city. Haberman has given the Rockettes more sophisticated choreography than of old to illuminate their precision beyond the kick line.

The Living Nativity has been shortened, as well as the Nutcracker excerpt. From the live pit orchestra that swings a mean beat to the live fireworks that go off over the “New York sequence” to the multitude of dancing Santas, the show has an exuberance that is hard to find in our post-ironic times. Even the most jaded soul would have to smile somewhere along the line, and kids of all ages were squealing with delight.

It was sobering in the evening then to learn more about the killing in Mumbai. I travel a lot, and I tried to imagine what it would be like to be in the hotel restaurant for dinner and be confronted by terrorists shooting people in the head, slitting the throats of others.

Some commentators from the Indian Times are calling this the Indian 9/11. Certainly as a watershed moment, but what is so different between the two is that the 9/11 terrorists killed like aerial bombers. These killings were hand-to-hand combat, except that their victims were unarmed civilians. It can’t get more vicious or depraved.

At this moment, who the terrorists are is unclear. What do they want? That is not clear either. In nonpolitical terms, it’s more what they don’t want. These terrorists don’t want anyone to imagine and create. They don’t want anyone to sing and dance, and to make a business out of it. They don’t want to see some people lighten the troubles of others by entertaining them.

Well, too bad dirtbags. Human nature is hard-wired to create. For some, that leads to the crazy, inspired idea that 36 women in matching outfits can dance with such precision that it will be a wonder to behold. For some, creativity leads to the singing and melodrama of a visually stunning Bollywood film. These things are not going to disappear just because some malcontents don’t like them.

Suketu Mehta, a professor of journalism at New York University who grew up in Bombay (before its independent name), is the author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. This is from what I’m sure will be a much-quoted Op-Ed essay, “What They Hate About Mumbai”:

“The terrorists’ message was clear: Stay away from Mumbai or you will get killed. Snip. But the best answer to the terrorists is to dream bigger, make even more money, and visit Mumbai more than ever.

So I’m booking flights to Mumbai. I’m going to go get a beer at the Leopold, stroll over to the Taj for samosas at the Sea Lounge, and watch a Bollywood movie at the Metro. Stimulus doesn’t have to be just economic.”

Amen to that. The Rockettes will keep kicking, Bollywood will keep singing, as the world tells the terrorists, NO.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thanksgiving: A Time to Be Grateful for So Much



Those people cannot enjoy comfortably what God has given them because they see and covet what He has not given them. All of our discontents for what we want appear to me to spring from want of thankfulness for what we have. Robinson Crusoe, Daniel DeFoe

It’s an oversimplification, but the thought of giving thanks for such a dire situation haunted me. Imagine being shipwrecked, alone, on a desert island, and being thankful for what you have—abundant food, good shelter, clothing, sunlight—instead of cursing what you lack, the company of another. Since I found that sentence, whenever I start to glance at the negative side of my balance sheet, this thought shocks me back a bit to look at the abundance of riches on the positive side.

In that same Wiki write-up was James Joyce’s famous take on the character Robinson Crusoe and the idea of British colonization:

"He is the true prototype of the British colonist. … The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity."

I felt so thankful for the enormous gift of James Joyce. For all he embodies of Irish soul, for his sublime use of the English language, for his pointed criticism.

And feeling connected to the wit and mind of Joyce made me think of John Donne,

"All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.......No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVll

One aspect of these connections between we volumes of one author is heightened, for me, by blogging. As I come to the end of a second year of this writing adventure, I am thankful for the community of readers who stop by these pages, and who create such wonderful pages for me to wander through. I don’t know if I’ll make it through a third year, but for now I’ll agree, Never, Never Say Die.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

November 22, 1963, to be seen from May 19, 2044


In the modern era, the death of one man stands apart from all others in American history. You don’t need to be a conspiracy fan to wonder what and who really was behind the death of John F. Kennedy. Forty-five years out, the story of the loner Oswald, then murdered by the nightclub owner Ruby, just doesn't set. And that’s not including the insanity of the single bullet that “traversed 15 layers of clothing, 7 layers of skin, and approximately 15 inches of tissue, struck a necktie knot, removed 4 inches of rib, and shattered a radius bone.” (wiki)

I saw a British documentary on the life of Jacqueline Kennedy that put a timeline to events in 1963 that I had not known before.

Jackie Kennedy gave birth to Patrick Kennedy on August 7, 1963, six weeks prematurely. In a crushing fate, he died two days later.

In October, Jackie’s sister Lee Radziwill convinced her to come out on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht to help her recuperate from the tragedy. The married Lee was having an affair with Onasiss, and he had an interest in Jackie. Even in the swinging sixties, it was a bold move for the married first lady to go to the yacht of the married Ari, unescorted. Payback for Jack’s epic philandering? Who knows.

A month later, JFK is murdered in Dallas.

This documentary did a good job of speaking to the emotional agony that Jackie suffered in her marriage to Jack. Such an intelligent, vibrant, talented woman who had the misfortune to once fall in love with a selfish man of enormous power. She had the misfortune to be attracted to the glamor of JFK, and she paid for it for the rest of his life as only a woman can pay.

In 2003 Robert Dallek published An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. He approached the Kennedys to allow him to read the 500-page transcript that Jackie Kennedy recorded before her death in 1994. From USA Today, “Caroline Kennedy politely refused Dallek's request to read it, saying her mother asked that it remain closed until 50 years after her death.”

If it is actually released May, 19, 2044, I think it will shed some new light on what happened in Dallas. I for one can’t wait to find out.

(photo from The Kennedy Assassination website. Website by John McAdams © 1995-2008)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

"Quantum of Solace": Shaken Beyond Belief

For my review of Skyfall, please go here.

The title of the new Bond film begs attention be paid to its distinct words. Quantum is a great Latinate word meaning “the smallest discrete amount of any quantity.” As for "solace":

“This flower is fair and fresh of hue,
It fadeth never, but ever is new;
The blessed branch this flower on grew
Was Mary mild that bare Jesu;
A flower of grace:
Against all sorrow it is solace.”


In John Rutter’s carol “There is a flower” the last word is pronounced “so-lace” to rhyme with "grace."

If James had a modicum of belief himself, even in the British humanist tradition, we would have a film that has some spark of life rather than relentless, grim death.

His quest for personal solace—which the concise OED defines as “comfort in distress or disappointment or tedium”—-is a vendetta to kill the villains who blackmailed Vesper into betraying him in Casino Royale. And yes, spoilers follow.

The general consensus of QOS is that this Bond is missing the wit and attitude—-park rake, part bon vivant—-that has defined the character.

Cosmo Landesman, Times: “Bond has been stripped of his iconic status. He no longer represents anything particularly British, or even modern. In place of glamour, we get a spurious grit; instead of style, we get product placement; in place of fantasy, we get a redundant and silly realism. Craig makes an attractive corpse, but Bond is dead.”

Bond is extremely taciturn in this film. He does not banter, there is no repartee, and only minimal actual dialog.

A.O. Scott, NY Times: “Does every hero, whether Batman or Jason Bourne, need to be so sad? I know grief has always been part of the Dark Knight’s baggage, but the same can hardly be said of James Bond, Her Majesty’s suave, cynical cold war paladin. His wit was part of his--of our--arsenal, and he countered the totalitarian humorlessness of his foes with a wink and a bon mot.”

Let's Talk TIMELINE
The lack of wit as a criticism, though, doesn’t make sense on the Bond timeline. Casino Royale and the QOS sequel predate Dr. No. Which means that we are in the land before the wise-cracking Bond.  Same thing about his devotion to duty. It defines the character later, and is missing here—-but it’s in his future.

The other major criticism is voiced by the great Roger Ebert, “James Bond is not an action hero!” Everyone is drawing a parallel to Jason Bourne, and not in a good way. I think there’s also a lot of Die Hard going on, in the ridiculous amount of physical beating that JB takes without dying.

Beyond the action film is an atypical take on the Bond girl. Strawberry Fields is introduced (Jemma Arterton) as a quick, disposable conquest, who has the dubious honor of being a visual inverse of the disposable conquest in Goldfinger.

The other is Olga Kurylenko, an actual partner from the Bolivian secret service. But they don’t become lovers. Richard Corliss had an interesting observation about the title that I think is echoed in this shot.

“So this time the keepers of the 007 flame went with one of the short story titles, which sounds more suited for an Antonioni film than the highly torqued action adventure that is Quantum of Solace.”

Olga is “dusted” a tanning color for the role, making her look Mediterranean. She and Daniel look exceedingly elegant here, her dress an echo of the sixties chic, with the set-in waist and sweetheart bodice. Walking through the desert definitely has an aura of Antonioni about it.

Corliss also see shades of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, Jackie Chan films, Syriana, and more. I can’t hear Bolivia without echoes of Butch Cassidy’s last dream. In some ways, the film suffers from too many cinematic quotes.

Rebooting a character for a new century is tricky business. Going back to roots is one way to try it. Daniel Craig has the gravitas and authority to be Jame Bond in the Connery mold. What he needs is a story that connects his energized take on the character with the essence of what made his character special.

QOS is still big time Hollywood in its excess best. It’s slick, polished, and exhausting to watch.

I had the most emotional connection to it at the very end, when the classic theme song kicks in over the final credits. They need to start there for the next film, and give us a Bond that we recognize.

If by the time he drops the necklace in the snow, he has forgiven Vesper and himself, then he is on the road to back to humanity. The fans can only pray so.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Happy Birthday, USMC


Today is the date of birth of the United States Marine Corps. It’s not something that gets much attention in the broad press.

I first learned about it a few years ago, of all places, in front of the 21 Club in New York City. As I was walking by an employee was raising the distinctive Marine flag on one of their poles. He told me it was in honor of their birthday.

“On November 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress resolved to raise two battalions of 'American Marines.' Congress commissioned 31 year old Samuel Nicholas, a well-known Philadelphian, as captain of the fledgling force of Continental Marines. Nicholas raised two battalions of Marines and so began the long, illustrious history of the United States Marine Corps.”

My father was a Marine. Not a career man. Too young for WWII, he enlisted after the war and put his time in for the GI bill. He was a communication specialist, and his “speaking” in the “dahs” and “dits” of Morse code was pretty cool when we were kids. In more ways than that, “once a Marine, always a Marine.”

From the Commandant's Annual Message:

ON OUR 233RD BIRTHDAY, FIRST REMEMBER THOSE WHO HAVE SERVED AND THOSE "ANGELS" WHO HAVE FALLEN - OUR REPUTATION WAS BUILT ON THEIR SACRIFICES. REMEMBER OUR FAMILIES; THEY ARE THE UNSUNG HEROES WHOSE SUPPORT AND DEDICATION ALLOW US TO ANSWER OUR NATION'S CALL.

FINALLY, TO ALL MARINES AND SAILORS, KNOW THAT I AM PROUD OF YOU AND WHAT YOU DO. YOUR SUCCESSES ON THE BATTLEFIELD HAVE ONLY ADDED TO OUR ILLUSTRIOUS HISTORY. GENERAL VICTOR H. "BRUTE" KRULAK SAID IT BEST WHEN HE WROTE, "... THE UNITED STATES DOES NOT NEED A MARINE CORPS ... THE UNITED STATES WANTS A MARINE CORPS." YOUR ACTIONS, IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN, AND ACROSS THE GLOBE, ARE AT THE CORE OF WHY AMERICA LOVES HER MARINES.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MARINES AND SEMPER FIDELIS!
JAMES T. CONWAY,
GENERAL, U.S. MARINE CORPS,
COMMANDANT OF THE MARINE CORPS//

Today’s 233 birthday reminds me that the Marines are out on the battlefield every day, following orders. For a moment today, wherever they are in the world, they will participate in some celebration of the foundering of the Corps. We can only pray that the new Commander-in-Chief will not waste a single one of their devoted lives.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

My Three Best Friends: Malleus, Incus, and Stapes

My grandmother used to say that people get the funniest things, except that they are not that funny.

I have fallen into that category a few times, where, among other things, I have learned new words. The one was CSF leak. That condition now has a celebrity face to it in George Clooney.

The other was cholesteatoma, which has no celebrity presence.

Looks like something about cholesterol, doesn’t it? Many doctors have never heard of it.

Here’s one jolly definition:

“Cholesteatomas have been recognized for decades as a destructive lesion of the skull base that can erode and destroy important structures within the temporal bone. Its potential for causing central nervous system complications (eg, brain abscess, meningitis) makes it a potentially fatal lesion.”

It’s a little like a microscopic Blob, that great sci fi movie from the sixties, that eats anything in its way. The lesion is actually dead skin and cells that have clumped together because of a retracted eustachian tube. A retracted tube doesn’t allow enough air to circulate in the middle ear, and air is needed to clean out the dead skin and cells that slough off.

The tumor grows and grows. It attaches to the ossicle chain, the miracle of the 3 smallest bones in the body in the middle ear: the malleus, incus, and stapes.

I have read descriptions of how they work, how they create sound for us to hear, and it still seems to be a miracle beyond belief. Think about your ear, now think about THREE BONES banging away in there: the hammer, the anvil, and the stirrup.

Once the cholesteatoma was found in my left middle year, I didn't have an option. And so I had 5-hour surgery to cut the growth out. Almost always cholesteatoma surgery means ripping out the bones of hearing with the tumor, leaving you completely deaf in that ear. Then 6 months to a year later, they go back in and try to replace the bones with prosthetic malleus, incus, and stapes, either from a cadaver, or made of titanium.

But I had a 1 in a 100,000 piece of good news: the tumor was sitting in such a way that he could cut it out and leave the ossicle chain intact.

I go once a year for a followup visit. It’s been 4 years now. It’s possible that a piece was hiding behind the bones, and will grow back. Then I will be back in surgery. It is definitely waiting for the other shoe to drop.

At least til that time, I can hear it, and the proverbial pin.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

November 4, 2008: A Turning Point in History

Out of the ashes of the worst eight years in American history comes the most progressive moment in the life of this young country.

I didn’t grow up in a very political household, but a socio-political moment from my childhood took form on this historic day.

Somewhere in the early seventies my mother had a moment of casual prescience. I had been asking her about the presidency, who can become president, etc. She said that any American citizen can.

I asked if a woman could be president. She said yes, technically, but that she thought the country would elect a black man as president before it elected a woman.

It was an offhand comment that stuck in my brain all these many years. And lo, it has come to pass. The primacy of male leadership has been upheld by the collective mandate at the time when Hillary Clinton was the most viable female candidate ever.

But that is looking back. It is a historic day to be shared and savored by all, the day that the race barrier to the highest office in the land was shattered. A man of color is now the leader of the free world. The social ripple effects of that will be tidal.

I pray that president elect Obama enters our lives with strength and wisdom and discernment. I reject any sense of the messianic about him. He needs to be a grounded, down-to-earth leader willing to slog through overlapping problems of the most serious nature. In reality, when the people’s work is really being done, it’s the least glamorous job there is. As citizens, we do him a dishonor to approach his administration with any expectation of miracles.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

What are the Odds (or should I say Oods)?


Big news in the Dr. Who universe, which I learned, as I do many things, via Alan Sepinwall. David Tennant has formally announced he is leaving the role, and now we have the delicious suspense of waiting to learn who will be the eleventh doctor.

Thank goodness the Irish bookmakers are on the case. They are dutifully tracking the shifting odds between all the names be bandied about. The top 3 as of this writing are David Morrisey, Paterson Joseph, and James Nesbitt.

I love the tradition of the novelty Irish books. (Vegas does some too, in a more limited way.)

The Irish will lay odds on and about everything. While the national spirit of their Anglo-Saxon neighbors insures everything a la Lloyds of London—-Betty Grable and Tina Turner’s legs, Keith Richards’s fingers, Celine Dion’s vocal chords-—the Irish national spirit is much more playful.

I don’t have a gambling gene in me, and I know that it can be an addiction that brings misery like any other addiction. But in it’s entertainment mode, it takes a fun spirit to bet on whether Birmingham will have a white Christmas, where Russell Brand will find his next job, and the granddaddy of them all, who will be the next pope.

Paddy Power
is one of the big online betting sites; it offers the usual horse and sporting events, but also a section devoted to novelty bets, which is where we find the Doctor Who odds. It offers 60 actors, which now begs some questions:

Is this the time to break the color barrier for the Doctor? Or the gender barrier-—Alex Kingston is given 50 to 1 odds, but at least she’s listed. As a smart commenter said over at Alan’s, the writers definitely set up Doctor/Donna this season, perhaps laying the groundwork for a female Doctor.

The list continues as a who's who (no pun intended) of British actors--John Simm, Adrian Lester, Anthony Head, Bill Nighy, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie--all the way to the long shots of Ricky Gervais (80 to 1), Hugh Grant (100 to 1), and Robbie Williams (150 to 1).

One idea I haven’t seen anywhere is an American actor taking on the role. I know, there is nothing more “British to the core” than Dr. Who. And it’s nice that it’s been spread around the whole isles, with the Scottish Tennant, which would be continued further if the Northern Irish Nesbitt takes over.

But an LA detective is prototypically American, and yet the esteemed Damian Lewis is playing him beautifully; an East Coast doctor who is the son of a US Marine is Amurican, but it’s no less than Bertie Wooster who brings him to life. If these Brits weren't on our own tv shores, the thought would not have crossed my mine.

Still, if the Irish bookmakers aren’t giving odds for any American actors, then, it’s not a possibility. This is something they know.

Friday, October 31, 2008

A Tidbit of Terror for Halloween

The annual night of ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties is the time to talk about terror. Not the political kind, the personal kind.

I’ve experienced the usual doses of fear: we sailed through the tail end of hurricane on the Schooner Appledore, and I was afraid for most of it; fear of the first day of high school; I got lost once as a child, and that was real fear; fear of finding out something terrible about a boyfriend; all day on Sept. 11.

But I only experienced terror once.

What is terror?

In philosophical terms, it ends up in the same discussion as the sublime. Not what I would have thought.

From Edmund Burke’s essay “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful” of 1757, [where “terrible” means “of terror"]:

“whatever is in any sort terrible,…is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

In terms of power, I agree with him. The sheer magnitude of terror is part of what sets it apart from fear.

Ann Radcliffe, the queen of the Gothic novel, wrote an essay called “On the Supernatural in Poetry” written in 1826, where she said that terror “expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life”. Sure, if you call not being able to breathe a “high degree of life.”

My moment of terror came, of all places, in a nightmare, and it came in the form of sound. Deafening, terrifying, sickening sound.

In the dream I am in the house I grew up in, in my brother’s old room, which is the room I often stay in as an adult when I visit.

I am asleep, in bed. I wake up and I hear a deafening clanging sound, which for some reason I know is 1,000 ton doors that are slamming down into the street outside. The smashing sound was ear splitting, the weight of the doors terrifying itself. I could feel the weight of tons of steel in the sound—and they just kept smashing down into the street.

(It doesn’t make sense that there would be large, garage-door like doors falling in the street, but it was a nightmare, it doesn’t have to make sense.)

I was terrified by the sound—I “knew” that it meant something extremely dangerous. More dangerous than words can articulate. The sound displaced all the air in the room. It was so suffocating that I woke up gasping for air: I was in full terror. It took hours for my reason to regain control of my terrified emotions—to understand that I was still in my home, safe—and a full day for the effect of the terror to wear off.

As Ann and Edmund explain, terror has the factor of ambiguity, of not knowing.

Burke again: “To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”

In the dream, I never got out of bed. I didn’t go to the street to see what was going on, it was all in the sound that was paralyzing me.

The terror was so deep that I went to a psychiatrist to try to learn what it was, what did the sound signify? Unfortunately, the Irish-in-therapy-issue kicked in, and I didn’t learn much.

It’s never been repeated. I hope it never will. Life is scary enough on a general basis without the need for the overdrive of the sublime in the fear department.

Happy Halloween everyone! Pleasant dreams.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

“How Long Is a Piece of String?” Lou Dorsfman, 1918 to 2008

Lou Dorfsman died last week. He was a legend in the world of graphic design for having designed “every aspect of the Columbia Broadcasting Company’s advertising and corporate identity, including the set of Walter Cronkite’s newsroom and the typographically elegant sign system for CBS’s New York headquarters, known as Black Rock,” as his ample NY Times obituary says.


Michael Beirut has written an elegant post that summarizes Lou’s career achievements in "The Four Lessons of Lou Dorfsman.”

I knew a more flesh and blood side of the man. I was a young associate editor at The Museum of Broadcasting, which had been founded by William S. Paley 1975, when Lou came to oversee the publications after he retired from CBS in 1991.

For the first few years we worked together Lou used the talents of a cadre of designers who had worked for him at CBS and then gone on to set up their own studios. I developed the editorial for exhibition catalogues or screening schedules that we needed, and Lou worked his magic. That process was thrilling to be a part of.

“How long is a piece of string?” is my favorite of his many in-process lines. He said it to our client whenever they were asking for specifics about costs for a project that was just in the brainstorming stage. Something can be anything. It’s the creative challenge to find out what it should be. “M.A., when are you going to go get a real job?” was another line he said, a lot. More about that later.

But what was most distinct about working with Lou was . . . it was FUN! We laughed and laughed over things big and small. He was enjoying being retired from a high-pressured job, and I was too young to worry. We were the perfect partners. His Zorba-like spirit for living filled the office. He was irreverent, funny, boisterous, cantankerous, smooth, polished, charismatic. He loved his community of designers and embraced the knowing spirit that binds those who demand good typography together into a band of brothers.

And they were all men. Lou was from a gender-specific time in big-time design. He didn’t apologize for it and he didn’t’ defend it. There was a raunchy side to his humor, which sparked and crackled when he was with the brethren but was willingly stifled by a sense of decorum around women (or at least around me).

It’s a shame that Matt Weiner never met Lou Dorfsman: the Lou-gene is completely missing from his Mad Men and they are a bloodless, one-dimensional lot in comparison.

For ten years we worked closely, as his loyalty to William S. Paley meant he was going to continue to keep an eye on Paley's museum venture. He could be a very warm colleague, as he followed the vicissitudes of my dating with interest and advice. He loved to go out to lunch with the publications staff-—he was interested and engaged in everything.

One day, for no particular reason, he gave me a copy of the book about his career, Dorfsman & CBS, with this inscription, “To Dear M.A., Talented, hard working, underpaid . . .a delight to be in her company as an associate and friend-—all best wishes and here’s to a rewarding big career” Lou Dorsfman

It turned out that the piece of string we worked on together was long enough to turn into something "real" for me. It’s cliché to say “he taught me everything I know” but that doesn’t make it untrue.

I can’t match the professional accomplishments, but when things get needlessly grim in the office, I think about his ebullient spirit, and Bronx street kid sense of fight, and insist we all lighten up. For me, that's the best part of his legacy. The Gastrotypographicalassemblage (pictured above) is very nice too.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Live Blogging Mad Men: Crisis Management 101

It is possible to undergo a profound crisis involving non-ordinary experiences and to perceive it as pathological or psychiatric when in fact it may be more accurately and beneficially defined as a spiritual emergency. -- Stanislav Grof

The end of season two of Mad Men finds us all in crisis.

Crisis. It’s a very powerful and distinct word in the English language. It’s married to certain other words: the Cuban Missile Crisis (more about that later), the Energy Crisis of the seventies, the Savings & loan crises of the eighties, today’s Wall Street Crisis, the generic midlife crisis and spiritual crisis.

As we prepare to leave Don and the gang at Sterling Cooper, this is what we find:

Betty is in crisis from being forced to acknowledge Don’s cheating; Roger’s crisis is the classic midlife variety, with a woman younger than his daughter; Freddy Rumsen’s is the crisis of midlife unemployment; Pete Campbell has had several, from the death of his father to that of elusive parenthood; Joan’s is the most horrific--sickening proof her fiancé’s abusive nature—and not running from it.

And then there’s Don.

Don has finally been thrown out of his marriage by Betty, and while on the run in LA, he watches an aerospace presentation that portends the potential for Doomsday. There’s nothing like the reality of nuclear warheads to call attention to the meaning of your life.

From there, Don joins the Euro-grifters in Palm Springs, where he spends a lot of time lying down. In the final scene, he is nearly naked as a new-born babe, when Dick Whitman calls the first Mrs. Draper. This begins a series of flashbacks and present-day confusion, as he continues to be Dick Whitman, until he wanders into the ocean, either as Norman Maine, or as a seeker looking for the cleansing water of baptism.

Don is a living identify crisis-—not something you often see on television. I have vague memories of some characters in the seventies saying things like “I don’t know who I am” (oddly enough, Karen Valentine from Room 222 is popping into my head here, as is Ellen from Thirtysomething), but nothing that compares to the turmoil in Don’s borrowed soul.

I knew a priest who once told me that all crises after 30 are spiritual. (I was 26 at the time, but it still seemed reasonable.) And so it is that Don’s crisis is deeper than identity, it’s spiritual.

In today’s self-help language, it might be called a spiritual emergency. There are many blogs with personal transformation stories, like this one:

“I am an individual who has undergone a transformative experience that in this culture and setting would be identified as psychosis or schizophrenic. Other cultures and settings have other names for the same experience: kundalini awakening, shamanism, mysticism, gnosis, the psychotic-visionary episode, the dark night of the soul, ego death, the alchemical process, positive disintegration, post traumatic stress disorder with psychotic features, spiritual emergency, etc.”

I don’t know if Weiner knowingly tapped into this world of transpersonal psychology, or if he just had the creative idea of a man who takes another’s identity, and then plotted what he thought would be the emotional fallout from that. Either way, Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency is an interesting touchstone.

As for the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis: there’s very little I can say about that. My parents, who both worked for Pfizer, sold a considerable amount of Pfizer stock when the market tanked in the uncertainty, and for one reason or another they didn’t get back in. The way they always spoke of it, I would have been a Pfizer heiress if the missile crisis hadn’t happened.

It’s art imitating life, all around.

You don’t want to miss the last live blogging of the season with Tom Watson and myself. Sunday night, 10:00 ET at newcritics.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Entry-to-the-World Day

I’m sending me and all my fellow celebrants this bouquet of autumnal flowers, and some October-love from the poets.

Today’s celebrants include Samuel Coleridge, Dizzey Gillespies, Carrie Fisher, Elvin Bishop, Manfred Mann, Ursula K. Le Guin, Whitey Ford, Patrick Kavanagh, Peter Graves, George Solti, Malcolm Arnold, Alfred Nobel, Alfonse de Lamartine. UPDATE: And Olivia on Fringe.

Pretty good company.



Well, it's a marvelous night for a Moondance
With the stars up above in your eyes
A fantabulous night to make romance
'Neath the cover of October skies


Van Morrison, Moondance


October is marigold, and yet
A glass half full of wine left out
To the dark heaven all night


Ted Hughes, October Dawn


O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
To-morrow's wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
To-morrow they may form and go.

O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow,
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled


Robert Frost, October

Friday, October 10, 2008

Mad Men: EST, aka Even Suckers Transform

When we last saw Don, he was in the glow of sunlight through the window of DC8 on his way to Los Angeles to get away from his domestic travails. It’s the primal tactic of flight when fight doesn’t work. Good old running away. After the week we have witnessed, we should all be so lucky if we could escape from our economic travails by a geographical shift.

The most we can do is visit our fictional world of choice, where our hero is sitting on a jet plane. Hmm. An East Coast man, who is dissatisfied with his life with his wife and children and who has a penchant for reinventing himself, is heading out to California. Real-world thoughts start seeping in, and Werner Erhard pops into my head.

Why is that? Let’s see. John Paul Rosenberg was a used car salesman born in Philadelphia. He married and had 4 children before he decided he didn’t want that life. He went cross country with another woman, and reinvented himself as Werner Erhard in St. Louis. The Erhards bounced around the country for 10 years, but of course the important date is in 1971 when Werner held the first Est weekend in San Francisco after he created a personal empowerment program by putting multiple world philosophies into a cuisinart and turning it on high. Rosenberg/Erhard is a tale that would have much resonance for Whitman/Draper, the time shifting notwithstanding.

Rosenberg/Erhard actually relied heavily on an earlier work by Napoleon Hill called Think and Grow Rich, which came out in 1937 and which Dick/Don could have been familiar with. He certainly is acquainted with its three main principles: every achievement begins with an idea; plans call for their implementation and; what you think is what you do.

Don is a unique character on television in that reinvention of himself. We’ve met characters with 2 identities: Bruce Wayne/ Batman; Tony Soprano, suburban Dad/Mafia boss; Samantha Stevens, housewife/witch; Christian Slater now topping all that, with Henry/Edward.

But I believe Don is unique on our tv landscape in the very serious business of opportunistically shedding your identity and assuming another man’s life. It has dark undertones of metaphorical cannibalism, twinged with that most modern of nihilism: Don’s mask brings him no happiness.

But that’s depressing, and who can be depressed when we will all be visiting LaLa land together.

Stop by newcritics on Sunday night when Tom Watson and I will forget about the stock market long enough to feel Don’s pain.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

QQF: Looking on the "Brite Side" of Wisgeuy

I was a fan of Stephen Cannell’s Wiseguy from the very beginning. I don’t know what made me start watching it back in 1987 when it debuted as a lead in to Knots Landing, amid a landscape that included Matlock, thirtysomething, and Beauty and the Beast. But Vinnie Terranova (Ken Wahl) and Sonny Steelgrave (Ray Starkey) were a flash of something cool and dangerously homoerotic with none less than the Moody Blues as their soundtrack. Next came Mel “the toes know” Profitt with an unknown Kevin Spacey and I officially entered fandom.

An offhand reference to the Steelgrave arc by a colleague got me thinking about the series other great arc—Dead Dog Records. He kindly brought me DVDs from his own collection, and a bout with the flu gave me the time to watch them.

It was great to watch the arc as a continuous piece. The cast is even more fabulous than I remember: Glenn Fry, Paul McCrane, Deidre Hall, Paul Winfield, Patti D’arbanville, and the real stars, Debbie Harry and Tim Curry.

The arc follows the music business as Vinnie resuscitates a bankrupt label. Deborah Harry plays a washed up singer trying to make a comeback, and Tim Curry is the evil record producer Winston Newquay. She was cutting the album Def, Dumb, and Blonde at the time and released the single “Brite Side” through the episode. It’s hard to reconcile the current Spamalot Curry with the FrankNFurter Curry who could sing a searing version of “Sloe Gin.” But that’s the great cheap thrill about this time machine: Tim Curry here still has the mystique of endless nights lived close to the edge.

Glenn Fry gets some great lines that as a rocker he can put across:

Vinnie: “What’s out in Jersey?”
Travis: “The graveyard of the industrial revolution and the toddlers of rock n roll.”

There are lots of delicious high points: Ken Wahl himself, the Chris Noth of an earlier generation who, alas, never met a Carrie Bradshaw; Deidre Hall and Debbie Harry flaunting full 80’s regalia in a Dynasty-inspired cat fight; Mick Fleetword as a music superstar who likes air hockey and pastrami.

The arc had one of the great fake-outs in tv history. Newquay on a jail cot, disturbs his cell mate who was sleeping under it. A tall, menacing black guy snarls at the petite Tim, then gets in his face. It looks like Winston is finally going to get some karmic payback. Then the guy asks if he is WN, and he starts singing "Soul Man." Curry looks shocked, horrified, relieved, and then joins in, perfunctorily at first, and then letting it rip.

Tim Curry had two more memorable scenes: dancing on the grave of his competitor Isaac, dressed as Fred Astaire humming “Lullaby of Broadway,” when Isaac’s recorded voice yells “Gotcha”; and then in full leather Elvis, in his office in front of a mirror, singing as he descends into madness. And for just a few seconds on prime-time tv, there’s a flash of authentic Curry and the dark side.

Be bop a lula, she's my baby
Be bop a lula, I don't mean maybe
Be bop a lula, she's my baby,
Be bop a lula, I don't mean maybe
Be bop a lula, she's my baby doll, my baby doll, my baby doll

Friday, October 3, 2008

From Photojournalism to Changing Philanthropy: Signs of Sanity

Photography is a major force in explaining man to man.
Edward Steichen, Time, Apr 7, 1961

A spirit in my feet said 'go', and I went.
Matthew Brady, on why he photographed the Civil War.

In the ongoing revolution of instant information-—now led by ireporters with cell phones and bloggers around the globe following the last generation’s innovation of 24/7 news-—the question of the place or need for the traditional photojournalist can arise.

Photojournalists are generally employed by MSM to cover an event. They are credentialed and given access to get close to their subjects in beats like campaigns or the White House. They work sources when covering events in foreign countries to learn how to get to where the action really is.

Their product-—the image-—can seem quiet in such a noisy, frenetically moving age.

Until . . . you see the piece of art in person. Then you will be dazzled at the power of the amazing feat that freezes an image and keeps it still.

I don’t often tout things going on at the day job, but there is an exhibit at The Paley Center for Media called “The Power of Elections: A Tribute to Photojournalism” that is really worth seeing.

Cocurated with the International Center for Journalists, it shows election-related images from Haiti, Poland, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Venezula, Ukraine, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, and our own race for the White House. Each of the world-class photographers has captured “the moment” that tells an entire story. Beyond the historical significance, they are pieces of art. Taken all together, it really is dazzling.

And, beyond seeing them in person, the ICFJ is auctioning them off to raise money for its various programs. Each photo is signed by the photographer. You can bid for them on a site called BiddingforGood. You can get there from the ICFJ homepage. I’m bidding on one of the images of Hillary Clinton.

BiddingforGood is a great site. Many small nonprofits and churches use it to raise money. From their FAQ: "BiddingForGood.com is a community that brings together cause-conscious consumers and organizations looking to raise funds to support their missions."

I’m going to do my Christmas shopping there this year. Rather than buying family gifts for people who really don’t need anything that can fit in a box, I’m going to take that money and bid on random things from small churches and organizations.

And, in one of the unexpected intersections in life, I found this site, because of the exhibit, just as I started reading Tom Watson’s book CauseWired, which looks at how the web, and social networking in particular, is changing philanthropy. And there I was actually participating in this new wave, rather than just reading about it.

I love when the universe makes sense, however briefly.

*******
Photos, top to bottom, all being auctioned.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy Campaigning in Portland, Oregon, 1966; Photographer: David Hume Kennerly

Voting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 2006
Photographer: Lynsey Addario

Hillary Clinton's Farewell Address, Washington, D.C., 2008
Photographer: Barbara Kinney

Bhutto's Last Stand, Rawalpindi, Pakistan, 2007
Photographer: John Moore

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Echoes of a Movie Legend in the World of Mad Men

It’s been a week of certifiable madness.

Stock market insanity; bank and company failures on an epic scale; the dollar amount of 700 billion said with a straight face.

And now the maddening reality of the loss of Paul Newman, who embodied the sea change of generational sensibility that is rocking Don Draper’s world.

The gang at Sterling Cooper don’t drop many film references. Do none of these New Yorkers go to the movies? By 1962 they should have all seen Someone Up There Likes Me, The Long Hot Summer, Cat on a Hat Tin Roof, Exodus, and The Hustler. Paul Newman was in his early powerhouse years.

There are lots of interesting intersections here. Jon Hamm as Don Draper has that old school, classic movie star handsome look. Paul Newman did too, especially in his early roles. But he also was the energy and charisma of the new generation that was sweeping into the culture, the antiheroes of Butch Cassidy and the defiance of Cool Hand Luke. Newman did not win an Academy Award until 1986; many people thought Hamm was robbed of the Best Actor Emmy last Sunday.

The character of Don Draper and Paul Newman were born around the same year, served in WWII, and came to power in the changing postwar culture.

Draper has some of the detached cool of Ben Quick and Fast Eddy, and he has reinvented himself like Rocky Graziano and Ari Canaan did. Still, he is conservative in his worldview, except where his mistresses are concerned. They speak to a piece of him that wants to be freer. When his wife buys a yellow beach ensemble at the country club, he tells her it’s “desperate” of her. The wife/mother role is inviolate for many, but that’s still a pretty square thing to say.

This week’s episode is “Six Months Leave.” When last we saw Don, Betty had told him not to come home. Maybe she is giving him a six-month leave from their marriage. Come over to newcritics as Tom Watson and I live blog the unfolding story, Sunday night at 10.

The Last of the Light in Those Blue Eyes


Paul Newman has a unique place in the history of American film. He bridged the leading-man archetype between the classic stars of the thirties and forties-—Tracy, Gable, Powell, Flynn-—and the antiheroes of the seventies-—Pacino, DeNiro, Hoffman-—having traits of both in spades.

Drop-dead handsome in the suits of the fifties and sixties, he brought real heat to the screen out of those clothes, in torn T-shirts or bare-chested. He embodied “every man wants to be him, every woman wants to be with him.”

A magnetic screen presence, he was sophistication imbued with an appealing irony, skepticism, and detachment. In my mind he represents America when we felt good about ourselves: tough, sometimes the underdog, gets back up when knocked down, takes time to enjoy a bicycle ride, defends honor, able to see and play the angles.

It feels like a terrible omen to lose this national treasure at the end of this unsettled week.

Friday, September 26, 2008

My Bank Failed First

In another era, nearly everyone in Brooklyn got their mortgages at the Dime Savings Bank of New York. It had been around since 1859. Not as old as The Bank of New York, founded by Alexander Hamilton, but old enough for comfort.

I wasn’t part of that era, but when it came time to open a savings account as a teen on Long Island, the Dime at the mall was just fine. And years later, when I needed a mortgage, the Dime was familiar, and I got a relatively modest mortgage.

Then, several years ago, the Dime was gone, and suddenly my money was at a bank called WaMu, short for Washington Mutual. It made little difference to me at the time, not be a very money-minded person. I could have/should have looked into what was this Seattle-based banking entity.

But life is short, and only art is long, and I didn’t pay attention.

Well, they have my attention now. Splashed across the NYTimes “Washington Mutual was seized by federal regulators in what is the largest bank failure in American history.”

It is numbing to have your life savings in a bank that has completely failed. Both the Federal Government, under FDIC, and JPMorganChase have stepped in to buy the assets. It was business as usual in the bank today. There was no run on at the teller lines, no particular panic. All the info on the websites we were directed to said that we had had an account at WaMu, and now we will have one at Chase. Very orderly.

Still, it’s a sickening feeling. Middle class means always having to worry. Heavy tax burdens, and no programs to help. The middle class spends a lifetime just staying afloat. But the system has to be in balance for it to work.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation meant that eligible, insured funds were backed by “the full faith and credit of the United States Government.”

Right now, I’d rather be protected by reason and “the math” rather than the government’s faith and credit.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

An Eye on Television

The Emmys are the most insane of the award shows.

The evening’s first two awards set a dreadful tone. Jeremy Piven won for a third consecutive year for Entourage. How does that make any sense. We all love the character Ari Gold, but three consecutive wins just shows how stupid the tabulating is for the Emmys. Neil Patrick Harris or John Slattery should have won.

Jean Smart won for Samantha Who?, a show that no one watches. Holland Taylor or Kristen Chenilworth should have won.

There was a strange shut out of Hugh Laurie and Jon Hamm by Bryan Cranston for best actor in a drama; Glenn Close did the same to break the Kyra Sedgwick/Holly Hunter dead heat in best actress in a drama.

There were some good moments. A nice tribute to Tommy Smothers. I’m always thrilled to see Martin Sheen. The Tina Fey juggernaut was okay, and I’m glad that Alec Baldwin won, since he went to my high school.

But all in all, it was a pretty discouraging state-of-the-television universe to someone who watches television fairly seriously.

However, I did have a positive television experience last week. The cast of Broadway’s The 39 Steps came to The Paley Center for Media to introduce 3 classic episodes from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders—who perform 40 different characters in the play between them in the innovative stage play—did the honors. They were funny and informed.

But the highlight of the evening was “Lamb to the Slaughter” with Barbara Bel Geddes, directed by Hitchcock himself; “The Man from the South” written by Roald Dahl, starring Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre; and “The Glass Eye” starring Jessica Tandy, with a young William Shatner, and costarring Billy Barty.

“Man from the South” was the most surreal and creepiest of the lot. Peter Lorre wielding a meat cleaver while Steve McQueen’s hand is tied down to a table while he tries to light his pocket lighter 10 times in a row was incredibly suspenseful.

It was a treat to see Hitch himself in the filmed bumpers around the episodes: he was funny, macabre, and disparaging of the commercial side of the medium. It was classy, intelligent, weekly television. A timely reminder that it can happen.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

In the Shadow of the Archduke


Last week we experienced a sickening reality of modern life: the chain reaction, house of cards, dominoes-falling impact of intertwined financial institutions. The most frightening aspect was the feeling that no one understands the big picture—no one really knows what’s happening or how to turn things around. The second most frightening aspect is the lack of responsibility on so many levels. Powerful people have been bilking the greater system for a long time, as we average people struggle for the basics of a house or apartment and a mortgage.

I don’t have a financial brain—just like I don’t have a political brain-—so I can barely follow the variables or the underlying premises.

I can only find some understanding in metaphor. As the week enfolded, a lesson from history swirled in my mind as I tried to understand what I was reading about trillion dollar bailouts.

It was how the assassination of an obscure archduke plunged the world into war and led to the death of civilization as the world knew it. Who could have thought, on June 27, 1914, that the next day when a Bosnian-Serb citizen killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, that the retaliation by Austria-Hungary against the Kingdom of Serbia would set off alliances that pulled the world into death. The world was never the same after the trenches of the Great War. The people of 1914, of course, didn’t have the perspective of what was really happening to them-—they could only react to each specific event or death of a family member on the battlefield or rationing, and keep going. Only history gets to have the tidy little stories that makes sense of the actual chaos.

A hundred years from now someone will be reading the latter-day version of Wikipedia about the financial collapse of 2008. What will the entry say? What’s the larger picture that we can’t see? Where is this leading us?

Maybe I’m focusing on that question to keep my mind off looking at my 403 (b) plan [I work for a nonprofit], where so much money has evaporated that I could weep for a week.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Living Ballet on the Bicycle

Let us now speak of the bicycle--as the most elegant of transportation modes, not in the sense of sport of riding. My 10 days of living in Rimini were enriched by having a bicycle to get around.

On my bicycle I finally felt integrated into Italian life. Stripped of all monkish guides and traveling companions, it was just me, the city map, and the bicycle, and thus I joined the amazing dynamic that is Italian flow.

Rimini is a schizophrenic beach town. The beach side is like the worst of Ft. Lauderdale; the old town center has beautiful vestiges of ancient Roman engineering and medieval walls in a no-car zone.

My hotel was near the beach, and the music conservatory was in the old town. Each morning I bicycled down one of the city’s main boulevards to one of the bike paths in the park.

It is freeing and empowering to buzz around on a bicycle. Even though it is not with the speed of the sport, you still feel that “oneness” with the machine the athletes talk about. Riding each morning in a flowing skirt with flip flops on my feet and knapsack on my bike were some of the happiest moments of well being I have recently known.

Biking though a crowded pedestrian plaza is a challenging art. You can come up behind someone and stop for a few seconds and still not put your foot down-—you can actually hover for the nanoseconds it takes someone to step out of your path, when you start pedaling again. It is like a beautiful, living ballet.

Sometimes in the midst of the flow walkers and bikers try to share the very same space. Thumb on the bell, you can gently “brrrrrrrring” when coming up on walkers, or give a frantic, loud “BRRING, BRRIING” if impact is immanent.

Rimini embraces bicyclists; my hometown is not very hospitable to them, except maybe in Central Park. I won’t be biking down Broadway any time soon—I don’t have the nerves for it. For me a daily ride—like attending a music conservatory—is the road not taken, but at least now visited, with deep appreciation.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Super Flumina Babilonis: From TV to the Choir Loft

Super flumina Babilonis. That’s Latin for “By the Waters of Babylon."

In my daily American life, it reminds me of Don Draper and the gang in season one of Mad Men which ended with the Beats singing the folk version of the song

In my 10 days of being an Italian polyphony singer, the words, set by the Renaissance master Palestrina, were a clearer path to the Biblical roots of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, cogently connecting us to the ancient sadness by the ancient Latin, sung in the slightly less ancient Basilica San Vitale in Ravenna.

Illic sedimus et flevimus: We sat down and wept

cum recordaremur Sion: When we remembered Sion

In salicibus in medio ejus suspendimus organa nostra: and we hung up our harps in the willows.

From the privilege of the choir loft, the celebrated mosaics were almost in arm’s reach. That was exciting. The view of the church from the loft was also memorable.

There were many things that were striking about participating in this international choral workshop in Rimini. One was how much of an Olympics air it had. Of the 25 people, half were the home team of Italians, then there were the Danes, the Dutch, a Russian from Moscow, several Brits, and three Americans. English was the lingua franca, followed by Italian.

The dinner conversation was interesting and varied, fueled by the diversity of day jobs. And it was there that I learned that most of my fellow singers don’t watch television. Nobody said it in the snobby way New Yorkers do—it sounded consistently genuine, and true (again, not like some New Yorker’s claims).

Well, I do a lot of things besides watching television, but I became aware of how many of my casual conversation references are tv-based. Travel. You can’t beat it for a dose of self-awareness.


One of the nonwatchers was Peter Phillips himself, the director of the Tallis Scholars. I didn’t know what to expect of this world-class conductor who runs summer workshops for amateurs. You would think the nonpros would be intolerable to him. But, it’s an easy way for him to be paid very well to stay in one place for a week, for a couple of hours’ work a day. The Tallis Scholars can't tour 12 months a year.

I have to say it was a thrill to sing under his direction. The control that he had over the group was sterling. And with his talent, we were able to pull off an 8-part piece. He was funny, engaged with what we were all doing, and down to earth.

One of his own next big projects is establishing a choir at Merton College, Oxford. I told him it’s a shame that the Inspector Morse series isn’t still filming there, (although the Sargeant Lewis sequels may be), but not being a tv-watcher, the reference meant nothing. Happily I also brought up Nesciens Mater, when he spoke about wanting to put the composer Jean Mouton on the map. That made him nod and smile.