Sunday, February 28, 2010

Recent Unexpected Touchstones

What I Have in Common with Paul Krugman

I minored in Economics in college. But that’s not it.

From Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile in the New Yorker:

“I still get a frisson in Penn Station when I hear them announcing the Babylon-line trains,” Krugman says. “It’s like ad jingles from your childhood, you remember it always.”

You have to be from the South shore of Long Island to truly bond with that sentence. There is something very special about the Babylon line train stops. We can all say them from memory.

Rockville Centre
Massapequa Park

The cadence of the syllables is alluring, the doubleness of the Pequas is musical (even if it's not your hometown). And when the sense of “home” is attached to the string, it is seared into the heart. Maybe the people of the Port Washington or Hempstead branches feel the same way about their stations. We just haven’t heard from them about it.

Brel on Ice

I had the Olympics on in the background on Saturday night, not really paying attention. The last moment I had focused on it was the snowboarding, and then I was engaged in conversation, when suddenly a musical voice pierced my ear. The skating gala exhibition is on, and Evgeni Plushenko is skating to Jacques Brel.

That voice. There is none like it. If you have ever had a Brel phase you know that he is like a drug. You can’t get enough of it. You want to live forever in the depths of that searing, knowing pain, of that tantalizing sexuality, his occasional moments of lightness before he descends again into the primal place of extreme consciousness of the human condition, of Man/Woman.

And now the exquisite Russian is ice dancing to Brel singing “Je Suis Malade.” It makes my heart skip a little beat. And it makes me long to hear the song that for me, tops them all.

What a surprise to later hear the distinctive downbeat chord of the piano, and then that haunting tinkling opening.

The Swiss heartthrob Stephane Lambiel is skating to “Ne Me Quitte Pas”—a song Brel wrote when he was going through a divorce. Its mournful refrain, “don’t leave me, don’t leave me, don’t leave me” a perfect match to Lambiel’s emotive, dramatic moves. Best of all, he was allowed to use the entire song.

What I learned about Brel is that I can’t live in that hyper-emotional space. In my twenties it almost burned me out completely. But when the universe decides to bring me back there for an unexpected moment, I don’t mind. I sing along in French with conviction, tear rolling down the cheek like Yvonne in Casablanca joining in “La Marseillaise.”

Here’s Lambiel from Russian coverage (the commentators do stop talking, and the video quality is excellent).

Ne me quitte pas
Il faut oublier
Tout peut s'oublier
Qui s'enfuit deja
Oublier le temps
Des malentendus
Et le temps perdu
A savoir comment
Oublier ces heures
Qui tuaient parfois
A coups de pourquoi
Le coeur du bonheur
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas
Ne me quitte pas

Sunday, February 21, 2010

O Canada

My first cognizance of Canada was Joni Mitchell. A close junior high school friend had an older sister who turned us on to the album Blue, and the sublime song “A Case of You.”

On the back of a carton coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh Canada
With your face sketched on it twice

After that, I didn’t think much about the country. About ten years ago I stumbled on the CBC’s Da Vinci’s Inquest on late-night tv, the Quincey-inspired drama based partly on the real-life experiences of Vancouver’s coroner, Larry Campbell. And it turns out that Quincey was inspired by a 1966 to 68 Canadian series called Wojeck! There is simply no end to the Canadian/American cross-pollination.

I have been to Vancouver, but only on my way to visit friends in Alaska. (I must say that the Vancouver Airport is one of the most beautiful in the world. A waterfall greets incoming international visitors. The whole building offers art and natural materials that give you more of a sense of place than any airport I have been in.) I have not traveled in Canada, except for some hiking in Nelson, which is in British Columbia.

And now the Olympics. I think it’s nice that within a lifetime you can pay attention to it some years and not care at all other years. This year I’m hooked. I’m finding immense inspiration in the stories of the athletes. I think there is so much to learn from their work, created on the extraordinary canvas of ice and snow. Sure, they are talented athletes. But it takes so much more than talent to compete and win. It takes determination and a “never give up” mentality. Everyone can relate to that, even if we can’t all fly through the air.

Hannah Kearney, the first American to medal gold. She didn’t even make it to the finals in Turin, basically coming in 26th place. Pretty discouraging. And then she Moguls to gold.

J.R. Celski, short track speed skater. Fell last September in a race, and sliced open his thigh with his blade. Dangerously close to the femoral artery, which would have meant death. Five months later he wins bronze in the 1500 meter.

Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, coming back from a downhill wipeout where he landed flat on his back and shredded various body parts. He won the gold in the Super G. His elation itself was inspiring. His father in the stands overcome with emotion.

And Bode Miller. His daredevil downhills brought him 2 silver in Salt Lake City, but by Turin he lost the spirit of the games. He didn’t care about competing, and spent too much time in the party circuit. He didn’t win anything. Now, in Vancouver, he cares about performing, and he feels closer to the ski team. He has already won a bronze, a silver, and the gold in the Super G.

For all the corporate sponsorship, for all the national pride, for all the trappings of the franchise, at the end of the day it is individuals who have developed unique skills and talents to push the limits of these strange bodies of ours. Every four years it’s nice for the non sports fan to pay a little attention.

I can't help but note again the concurrent headlines about the surge in Afghanistan. What are we fighting for, except that there is a group of people who murderously don't want the West to be the West. And we have to say "No" to them from all angles.

(photos: Lindsey Vonn, downhill and medal ceremony. New York Times)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mardi Gras!

Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Hot Cross Bun Tuesday, i.e., the culmination of Carnival, which is celebrated in extraordinary fashion in many countries of the world. The Boston Globe gave it its Big Picture treatment--the photos are stunning (HT Andrew Sullivan). This photo is a Somersert Maugham story waiting to be written.

One of these days I'm going to go to Carnival in one of its obscure incarnations. As for today, I enjoyed a King Cake from Haydel's Bakery, NOLA, at the day job. They make one fine King Cake, and they ship fresh anywhere.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Cupid Meets the Tiger

Another mashup this weekend is Chinese New Year’s Day on Valentine’s Day when the Year of the Tiger begins on Feb. 14. Here are the general attribute of those born as Tiger: Courageous, active, and self-assured. Optimistic, passionate and independent. Rebellious, dynamic, and unpredictable. Quick tempered but considerate. Affectionate but careless. The Tiger is a natural born leader and symbolizes power, passion and daring.

Not surprisingly, famous Tigers include Diana Rigg, Agatha Christie, Queen Elizabeth II, Marilyn Monroe, Mary Queen of Scots, and Tom Cruise.

The commemorative stamp this year features Narcissus, which appear in China in February and symbolizes hope and prosperity. To us it is a daffodil. And so I will think of Wordsworth. Last year VD for me was all about Poe, but I’m happy to be happy with Willy the Great, the guy who knew “the bliss of solitude” as he recollects a vision of beauty in tranquility. It's an idea that is comforting to consider, although the best bliss is of course, shared.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
and twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
in such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
what wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Depends on What You Find Bittersweet

This three-day weekend is a strange cosmic mashup of events.

The big sad news on Friday was the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili on the luge track in Vancouver. Of course it was sad, a 21-year-old athlete living his dream of being an Olympian and, in his own personal Appointment in Samarra, meeting his death instead of Olympic glory. And so the buzz word for the opening ceremony was bittersweet. The commentators all used it repeatedly, as did the print journalists.

But at the same time as the athletes were assembling in Canada, the soldiers were assembling in Afghanistan in a massive offensive to rout out the Taliban. Strange fate, or by some design, to have this surge on the day of the opening ceremonies. Bob Costas made no reference to it.

I think the Olympics are a good idea. What else brings so many young people from around the world together? Where else does Iran occasionally show up to participate in a Western ritual?

But the real bittersweetness this weekend is that these athletes’ young counterparts are on active combat duty in a hostile land. They are knowingly risking their lives to put an end to an enemy who threatens so many lives.

I don’t know what the medal count is, but the NY Times reports that the heaviest fighting is to come.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

"Peace, Love, and Soul"

“I KNOW there is nothing a white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive,” James Spader’s hard-driving lawyer says in the new David Mamet play, “Race.” “I know that. Race is the most incendiary topic in our history. And the moment it comes out, you cannot close the lid on that box. That may change. But not for a long long while.”

And so Charles Isherwood opens his New York Times review of Broadway’s Fela!, about the Nigerian activist/singer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, choreographed by Bill T. Jones.

Isherwood’s review caught my eye because I have attended two very moving events at the day job spotlighting African-Americans.

I have lead a segregated life, not in a negative way, just a defacto way. I grew up on Long Island in racially unmixed Massapequa Park. I went to school at Rutgers, which had a diverse student body, but my crowd was and is mostly white.

On a personal level, I’m just not cool enough to have black friends. Something that has never been more clear to me than the two premiere events I recently attended: the premiere of the VH1 Rock Doc Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America, and The Black List, Volume Three, an HBO documentary by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell in conjunction with an photo exhibit by Greenfield-Sanders.

"Soul Train, Soul Train"
I have vague memories of Soul Train coming on in New York on Saturday morning on channel 5 at noon, after the morning’s cartoons that my brother and I watched. We would watch a little of it, but by noon we were ready to go outside and play, and the show was a little old for us at the time. But I’m glad that I have some direct memory of the “Soul Train Line” when the dancers really strut their stuff, and we must have stayed to see the whole thing sometimes, since I clearly remember the “Peace, Love, and Soul” kiss by host Don Cornelius.

The documentary is excellent, narrated by Terence Howard, scored by Questlove, and with vintage footage of the show, with performances by Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Sly Stone, Smokey Robinson and Snoop Dogg, who also appear as talking heads. There is also great footage of the Jackson Five, Al Green, Barry White Teddy Prendergast, and some surprising white boys: Elton John and David Bowie!

The best talking head is Don Cornelius himself, tv’s best baritone voice of all time. He had a vision back in Chicago where he had to beg acts to perform on the show. In its second year he moved to L.A. baby, the big time. The show took off.

In 1970 there were very few blacks on television outside of the evening news, where the images were mostly negative. But there was Soul Train, the black community’s answer to American Bandstand (which I never saw; it must have never followed cartoons). It was a celebration of black fashion, hairstyle, and dance. In fact, Michael Jackson developed his moonwalk from watching a dancer do a move called the backslide on the show. The talking heads all attest that everyone watched it to find out what was in. Questlove, who grew up in Philadelphia, said it was on after SNL there, and his parents woke him up to watch it to see positive blacks on tv. Now those are cool parents. The documentary has just enough historic news footage to give you the proper context for how groundbreaking this show is.

The audience at the Paley Center was predominantly black, and you could feel the collective emotional connection to this part of everyone’s childhood. Don Cornelius stepped down in 1993, but it stayed on until 2003.

The Black List

Media critic Elvis Mitchell and photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders created a project called The Black List, to capture the lives of prominent contemporary African American on film and in portraiture. HBO produced the documentaries where the participants tell some of their story. The newest, Volume Three, will be on HBO on Feb. 8. The portraits from Vol. Two and Three will be at the Paley Center until May 2. They are really worth seeing.

I watched the premiere with a large audience of black film students. Both Faye Wattleton, the first black president of Planned Parenthood, and Dr. Michael Lomax, the president of the United Negro College Fund, where onstage for the post screening discussion with Timothy and Elvis. Lomax talked about his goal to keep the traditional all-black colleges—Moorehouse, Dillard, Spelmen— open, which drew huge applause from the audience.

The civil rights movement brought about the necessary statues to give blacks legal rights under the law and to end segregation in the south. But there is some benefit to communities staying tight. Lomax talked about living in Tuskegee, Alabama, and what a rich experience it was to have the black doctor and lawyer next door, and for the kids to know that if they stepped out of line on the block, they’d get hit in the head by a neighbor, and get it again when they got home. Of course, this tight community only happened because blacks were not allowed to buy homes in other neighborhoods.

Black History Month

I think everyone has mixed feelings about a Black History Month. Elvis’s introduction at the event riffed on about how much he loves it, but me thinks his tongue was in his cheek. Frank McCourt had a similar feeling about St. Patrick’s Day. He hated it. He said he’s Irish every day.

But there’s nothing wrong with helping the rest of us consider the fate and culture of different communities. What I loved about the Soul Train doc was the testimonies about how every wedding since the show has a dance line, with home videos to illustrate. Now that’s universal.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Call Me Heat Miser

In the middle of this cold snap Penelope Green published “Chilled by Choice,” in the NY Times, telling the tales of various people in northern climes who choose to live with little or no indoor heating for varying reasons. (With this beautiful photo by Beatrice De Gea.)

I am here to be the yin to their yang, to bend the cosmic spine in the opposite direction so that the earth stays on its proper axis (more about that later) with a little help from the Miser Brothers from The Year Without a Santa Claus.

“SERIOUS cold, Justen Ladda said, is when the sponge in the kitchen sink feels like wood or the toothpaste freezes or the refrigerator turns itself off.”

I don’t consider it seriously hot in my apartment---even in an honest-to-god heatwave (over 90 degrees for more than 5 days)--if I can still breath without assisted oxygen. I never put on the air conditioning, I want to luxuriate in the heat and sweat.

Winifred Gallagher explains that “when your house is 15 degrees, the only problem you have is getting warm. Focusing on survival is right up there with a Zen retreat when it comes to clearing the mind.”

Living in New York City is survival enough for me. I need to be embraced by warm air in my home at all times. Maybe I was a hothouse flower in a previous life and some of the DNA stuck.

I withstand the cold well outside; I rarely wear a hat no matter how cold the temperature. But home needs to be sultry.

I’ve traveled around a good deal, and I am certain I can live nowhere else but in an old New York City apartment with steam heat. My fate is quite sealed that way.

Rod Serling Got It

There is a classic Twilight Zone episode called Midnight Sun. It’s tells the story that the Earth had slipped off its axis and its orbit is narrowing, bringing it closer to the sun. This means there is no longer any night, and the temperature is over 100. People are dying, and the prospect is that the world will end in a ball of flames.

The story is being told from the POV of a young woman and her landlady trying to decide what to do as people around them are starting to lose their minds from the heat.

Twilight Zone SPOILER

The young woman passes out, and wakes up on her couch. The twist is that the Earth has slipped its axis, but it’s falling out of orbit away from the sun, and the world is slowly freezing. People are dying from the cold. She had a fever, and was dreaming of being warm.

Yup, that will be my last dream, at the end of time.

Play us out, Heat Miser

"I never want to know a day
That's under sixty degrees
I'd rather have it eighty,
Ninety, one hundred degrees!
Oh, some like it hot, but I like it
REALLY hot! Hee hee!"