Saturday, October 31, 2009

The New York City Marathon

The New York City Marathon is tomorrow and it's a very big deal. In part, because it's New York and it's 26 plus miles of grueling running, but also because parts of every borough are included in the race course. For those of us who live or work on Staten Island, we are proud of the fact that it begins here and covers a tiny fraction of the total distance before crossing over into Brooklyn via the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. For those of us who live on the Upper West Side, we are proud of the fact that it ends in our neighborhood on the edge of Central Park. I am, as a result, doubly proud!

But I'm also worried, for, you see, this being the New York City Marathon that includes parts of every borough, it is also an event that brings delay, congestion, and untold chaos to every section of the city. And there is no way to get around all of this craziness, so you must resign yourself to doing nothing during the time the race is run, unless you are a contestant. You might think spectators would also be spared, but no, they, too, must push and scrape to achieve any kind of reasonable perspective on the race.

So what I will be doing during the New York City Marathon? Occasionally wondering how contestants I know are faring, but mostly catching up on my reading and listening appreciatively to a Beethoven string quartet or one of those wonderful Schubert piano impromptus. And then, at just the right moment, about 2 hours and nine minutes after the race begins, I will take the two block stroll over to Central Park and just listen for the sounds of the large crowd that is gathered there cheering on the newest champion of the New York City Marathon.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Yankees

I live in New York City now, the same city as one of the winningest teams in the history of sports. I don't know, maybe the Montreal Canadiens won more Stanley Cups, maybe the Celtics won more basketball championships, maybe the Chinese Olympic Ping Pong team is still undefeated. But there is no question that when it comes to winning, no team is better known for it, no team better symbolizes it than the New York Yankees. And there they are once again in the World Series, vying for the 41st time to be the baseball champions of the world.

Of course, now that I spend all my time in museums, theatres, and concert halls, I know nothing, absolutely nothing, about the current Yankee team. Ah, but the great teams of the past, their stories still enthrall me. Pictures of the Babe on the street or in the newspaper always make me look. Stories about Gehrig or DiMaggio invariably pique my interest. And the Mick, as flawed as he was, his history still calls me, going all the way back to the schoolboy biographies by Gene Schoor and extending to a recent book like Pete Golenbock's silly fictional biography titled "Seven."

I don't even know quite why, really, because winning interests me so little, though I am endlessly fascinated by great performances. Often, it seems to me, there is a difference. But in the case of the Yankees, even though their individual performances were not always that great, they came together in the right moments again and again and again to outdo their opponents. It makes me think of the psychological side of competition, about which I still think we know so little, but in the case of the Yankees, they were so determined to win, and so confident that they would, that far more often than not they did prevail over the competition. No matter who that competition was and no matter how handicapped the Yankees were by injuries or by their own self-inflicted deficiencies (read: too much carousing), they found a way to come out on top.

Of course, even as I make these claims above, which only partially hold up, I return to the Babe, whose greatness, as compared to everyone else in his own time, is so surpassingly remarkable, so incredible, that he remains the standard in sports by which we measure anyone who is head and shoulders above all others. Now we have Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan, too, but when you look closely at what the Babe did, relative to his contemporaries, there just is no comparison. And when you think of the Babe, it only takes a second before you think of him in that Yankee uniform waddling around the bases at the old Yankee Stadium after striking still another towering home run.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Karen and I were crowded into a very busy subway car the other day, when we saw a little boy, somewhere between two and three years of age, sprawled on top of a stroller that was just a bit too small for him. He was calm but seemingly bored, with very little of the vitality that you expect from a boy that young. His mother, too, was still and appeared to be very tired, drained of expression or energy. Karen sat just a few feet away from the boy and, looking straight at him, flashed her most radiant smile. The boy responded immediately by beaming broadly, almost as if he were waiting to be acknowledged and appreciated in this way. Karen beamed back and for a few seconds that part of the car seemed almost suffused with sunlight, as the two smiling riders infected others with this epidemic of smiling, including the boy's mother who offered her own modest but irrepressible grin. There really is no way to overestimate the impact that a single smile can have on the everyday life of anyone, especially a child in the busy and seemingly uncaring city, just waiting to be greeted and appreciated with this simple but immensely human gesture.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lynn Redgrave

Lynn Redgrave is appearing in a one-woman show called Nightingale right now. She spends the entire 80 minutes of this show reading from a diary-like text recounting and reinventing the story of her maternal grandmother. Although her grandmother was a remarkably ordinary woman, she nevertheless spawned a daughter named Rachel who married a man named Michael Redgrave who in their own right and owing to the considerable accomplishments of their offspring created one of the most distinguished theatrical families of the 20th century. Frankly, the story of Lynn's grandmother in itself is not that compelling or moving, and yet, Redgrave is such a winning and effective performer, she rises above the material to turn in a performance that stays with you long after you have left the theatre.

Additionally, the parallels between her grandmother's life and Lynn's own life do leave an impact. Lynn found herself in a loveless and passionless marriage, which was roughly the sad and bewildering situation that her grandmother faced as well. Further, there is the larger context of Lynn's real life recurring cancer and her treatment for it that actually necessitates her reading from the text, something that she does with immense skill. But more broadly, her own impending mortality adds gravity to a play that attempts to recapture a life after it has ended and in which the main strands of the story were lost to family and to history, that is, until Lynn breathed new life into them.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Neil Simon

Is it obvious or hyperbole to say that Neil Simon is some kind of genius? Of course, we all know that back in the 60s and 70s he seemed to be able to write one uproariously funny play after another. I still laugh out loud at the scene in Barefoot in the Park when the newlywed Paul climbs the seemingly endless flights of stairs for the first time to the apartment his wife Corie has picked out and with almost no breath left inquires: "Did you know it's six flights?" To which his wife Corie answers, "It isn't, it's five," because the outside stoop doesn't count as a flight. Still barely able to catch his breath, Paul wheezes: "It may look like a stoop, but it climbs like a flight." That kind of line, which seems so simple to compose, but is, of course, a comic rarity, spewed liberally for almost 15 years from Simon's fertile pen in such plays as The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Sunshine Boys, The Last of the Red Hot Loves, and many others.

Sometime in the mid-1970s, though, he began to lose his touch, and for the first time in his professional career as a playwright lost the ability to attract large audiences. He recently related that he was on the verge of giving up on writing plays altogether in the early 80s, when he discovered a partial draft of an autobiographical play he had been working on some years earlier. He liked what he read and went on to complete Brighton Beach Memoirs, which was not only a hit, but also perhaps his first work that elicited from audiences as many tears as laughs. This led to a series of plays based on his childhood and early adulthood, including Biloxi Blues, Lost in Yonkers, and Broadway Bound, all of which were products of a maturing theatrical master, increasingly regarded as equally effective with drama as with comedy.

We saw Brighton Beach Memoirs the other night, and it struck me as not only flawlessly acted and produced, but as a kind of perfect capturing of one representative family's life in that hard and precarious year of 1937. It is, in part, the hilarious coming of age story of the fourteen-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome, but the bigger context is one of a large extended family just scraping by economically, the perils that can result from losing any source of steady income, and, most of all, the fear of a world war that cannot be stopped and the urgency of finding a safe haven for Jewish family members escaping from Europe before it's too late. All of that is there, but it is never done in a heavy handed way, and Simon's gift for humor holds the horror in balance, even as we know that it is only a matter of time before boys like Eugene will be obliged to risk their lives while fighting for their country. Our laughing is mixed with bitterness and loss and leavened with the hope and strength that families sometimes supply.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Shonen Knife

What the hell is Shonen Knife, you might be wondering, that is if you happened to glance at the title of this post. Well, Shonen Knife is an all-girl, Japanese pop punk band that we went to say a few evenings ago in an abandoned warehouse on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the launch of what will prove to be their triumphant U.S. tour. The three very small women who make up Shonen Knife create a very big sound and attract an eclectic and loyal gathering of fans. Their audience that night included old people like us, and our friend Stephen Brookfield, who got us the tickets, and is himself the leader of a punk surf band, as well as a large cohort of teenaged appreciators. Many of these younger fans enjoy standing near the stage under the glare of the harsh strobe lighting, jumping, gyrating and jostling each other (known as "moshing"). The members of Shonen Knife appear to be young, though the lead singer and guitarist - Naoko Yamano - has been doing this since 1981, when the group was first formed, and is now joined by two younger collaborators - Ritsuko Taneda - the bass player, and the hard driving Etsuko Nakanishi, their explosive drummer.

We enjoyed ourselves, though we arrived late enough only to hear about a half dozen numbers, which, for our first time, was enough. At the end, we were surprised to see a number of the older admirers, including Stephen Brookfield, pull plugs from their ears, which seemed like cheating, though if you go to enough of these concerts, you probably do need to protect yourself over the long haul against excessive noise. I had received an email from Stephen suggesting that we pick up ear plugs from a local drug store before arriving at the concert, but I thought he was joking. Only when the music ended and all these old guys (and they do mostly tend to be guys) pulled out their plugs did I realize that he had been completely serious.

At any rate, you might want to check out Shonen Knife. Until you have heard their rendition of "Deer Biscuits" or "Na Na Na," you really haven't lived.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

windows on the urban world

We now have three large windows in our abode that boldly face the neighborhood of the Upper West Side. As I have mentioned in other posts, there is a line of skyscrapers about 500 feet from these windows that remind us how immersed we are in an urban environment without, at the same time, giving us the feeling of being too penned in. But here's the thing about those windows. They are open to the world, uncovered and undraped, bringing in the sunshine from the East in the morning, while also revealing, until the last light is out, all our nighttime movements. This is okay, as all of these activities are entirely innocent and no one could make out anything, in any case, from the buildings that are so distant from our tiny habitude. But even if outsiders could peer into our private little universe, it wouldn't matter, as we are too much in love with the sweetness and light of our windows. Let there be light and activity and air and that wonderful sense of being a little bit above it all. Our downstairs neighbor has asked us to install some rugs on our beautifully refurbished wooden floors, which we are in the process of doing, but we are committed to keeping the windows as clear and unobstructed as possible. The morning light is invigorating, but the symbolism is important, too. That we should be as open to the world, especially this glorious urban world, as possible. May it always be so that our windows face the incredible busyness of the city, and may it be so as well that we continue to have a vista on this world, as it grows and shrinks and mutates in ways that no one can predict. That, too, is part of being of and with the city.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Ultimate Tribute to Autumn

It is another interesting fall day in New York, still warm and summer-like but also evincing some of the qualities of a deepening autumn and mingled with them are the subtle harbingers of the much colder weather to come.

All of this makes me think of John Keats' "To Autumn." I have memorized this poem and now write it here from memory. It has long been on my list of favorites and reminds me of so much that is thrilling and just a little bit wistful about autumn and the coming of winter. If you're interested in such things, you might want to check to see if I have recalled it accurately. Please don't hold me accountable for the grammar, which, I think, is idiosyncratic and not particularly consistent anyway.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
The vines that round the thatch eve run;
To bend with apples, the mossed cottage trees,
To fill all fruit with ripeness to the core,
To swell the gourd and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel, to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease
For summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow fast asleep
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thy watchest the last oozings, hour by hour.

Where are the songs of Spring, Aye, where are they?
Think not of them, thou has thy music too;
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue,
Then in a wailful choir the gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn,
Hedge-crickets sing and now with treble soft,
The red breast whistles from a garden croft
And gathering swallows twitter in the sky.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Indian Summer in New York City

It is warm today in the city, after a number of days of quite cold and rainy weather. But does this qualify as Indian Summer? According to Wikipedia, Indian Summer is a period of unseasonably warm weather (70 degrees or above) that occurs after the leaves have fallen and the first frost has taken place. If so, as I look around at the greenish canopy of trees that sits outside our terrace and when I consider that the cold weather did not descend to the freezing level, this current spate doesn't quite meet the official test. Nice weather but not a true Indian Summer.

In any case, it's nice and it would be very nice if it would last for a few days. The good weather makes Central Park biking a likelihood and opens up all sorts of opportunities for traversing the city by foot. With few commitments this weekend, except for a Neil Simon revival on Friday evening and a jazz concert on Saturday, the possibilities for getting in some good walking seem strong. A nice hike to Columbia, about 45 blocks to the North, as well as a sojourn to Greenwich Village, some 55 blocks to the South are both on the agenda. If the weather holds, the legs will be getting a good workout and the eyes will be feasting on the rich variety that makes this seemingly inexhaustible city so great.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Germans In New York

I spoke to two young German men in the subway on Monday night. They were trying to get to Columbus Circle, and weren't sure which subway line to take. They told me in their somewhat rudimentary English they had been in New York City for two weeks and loved everything about it. When I asked what they loved specifically. They answered: 42nd Street, the Empire State Building, the restaurants, the streetcarts, A Columbus Day Parade, Madison Square Garden (they went to a basketball game) and the fact that almost anything can happen.

I thought that was a pretty good list, especially the point about the unexpected. When I asked them what they meant, that anything can happen, they thought something was wrong with their English, and got a little embarrassed. I told them their English was great, but that I was interested in what they meant. Could they give an example of how anything can happen. They mentioned two things: 1. the party they stumbled on in Washington Heights nearby the friend they were staying with where everyone at the party had some part of their face significantly pierced; 2. the roller bladers in Central Park who seemed able to do virtually anything on a pair of skates, including somersaults and breathtaking leaps.

Just before I had to leave them to catch an express subway, I asked what they would remember most about their New York trip. They said how approachable and friendly everyone was. A finding that has surprised and pleased me as well. I thanked them and hurried away, recalling once again that part of the charm of New York is how hospitiably it continues to play host to people from all over the world.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Good Bobby

We saw a strange but somehow miraculous play the other night called Good Bobby. It is an attempt to capture the spirit of Bobby Kennedy in the years before his older brother's assassination. He is portrayed as a reluctant public servant, bitter, coerced, completely unsuited by nature for the job of Attorney General.

Although Bobby can be lighthearted and funny, especially in the company of his mother, he comes across most often as resentful, cut off by his domineering father from those things he would choose for himself if ever got the chance that would lend him that measure of humanity that secretly means so much to him.

It is a strange play, because it presents such a narrow slice of Bobby's life. We hear virtually nothing about his wife Ethel, his many children, even his close relationship with the President. Rather, the focus is on the workaholic who labors tirelessly to serve the purposes of others, and who lost touch with the kind, creative, deeply compassionate boy who was so obviously different from his far more aggressive siblings.

The play works because the man playing Bobby Kennedy is so perfect. He doesn't imitate him exactly, but he captures his halting, hesitant way of talking perfectly so that we think we really are witnessing Bobby's struggles to serve others and to find himself at the same time, an almost impossible challenge. Only when John was gone and his father had suffered a terrible stroke could Bobby recapture that special little boy and re-embody him in that brief but remarkable presidential campaign of 1968. At least that's the premise of the play, that the Bobby Kennedy that some believed was one of the two or three great leaders of the late 1960s was freed finally to be himself for that brief, shining moment only after this terrible dual tragedy had shattered his star-crossed family.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

New York Exhaustion

On the subway last Sunday afternoon, I sat next to a young African American mother and her daughter of about six years as they both slumbered deeply, seemingly undisturbed, despite the constant pivot of the rattling subway car and the raspy announcements that pierced the air every minute or two. They slept leaning into each other in a particularly endearing way, with the mother's arm tightly wound around the daughter's waist and the daughter's head resting softly on the mother's raised left thigh. Every now and then, the daughter lifted her head in a close-eyed daze of sleepiness, then dropped it again jerkily onto her mother's leg. The mother did not move at all.

How had these people spent the day and the previous night? What had they been doing to be so utterly exhausted? What late night vigil had they kept? What sick relative had they nursed? What second or third job had the mother squeezed into her impossible schedule, while her little daughter, out of necessity, accompanied her.
Where were they going now? And how far would they have to go before finally finding a comfortable and secure resting place?

Monday, October 19, 2009


I saw a man the other day on the Staten Island Ferry dragging a suitcase along the ferry deck with his right hand and holding a unicycle in his left. As soon as he passed me, I jumped up from my seat and tried to hurry over to him to ask him whether he rides the unicycle while pulling the suitcase, but, to my amazement, someone had already beat me to it, so I simply stood nearby to overhear his answer, which went something like this:

"No, I don't do that, in fact, I can't do that, as I need my arms in front of me to maintain my balance." "However," he added, "it is my primary mode of transportation in the city. I go to work on my unicycle, I use my unicycle to shop for groceries, and I even ride it to movie theatres and then tuck it under the seat beside me or in front of me. Unicycles are so versatile. You can go anywhere with them."

Apparently, this fellow is also a member of the New York Unicycle Club - - though he doesn't go to the meetings all that often, as he claims, contrary to the news on the website, that there's far too much talking at these meetings and not nearly enough actual unicycling. Also, I guess, too much focus on the tricks one can perform on a unicycle and too little focus on the simple utility of urban unicycling.

What would our unicyclist especially like to see in the city in the near future? More unicyclists. There are far too many bicyclists and not nearly enough people on unicycles. He plans to begin a blog himself soon to share the pleasures and special satisfactions of seeing the city from a unicycle. We wish you all the best, unicycle man!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"The Best Words in the Best Order"

One of my favorite events in New York City is the annual gathering of the Academy of American Poets. It is happening this weekend and this is the third year in a row that we will be attending most of its sessions. I know, I know, some of you reading this are probably thinking what could be more dull. But for us the chance to hear some very fine poets read their work and to learn from them as they comment in small panels on the poetry that has left the greatest impact on them, provides an unmatched opportunity to dwell on Coleridge's definition of poetry - "the best words in the best order."

I fear I am no poet, though I usually succumb to the occasional impulse to write it. What I love is the challenge of searching for just the right word to finish a line or begin a stanza. Prose, too, calls for a similar skill, but the brevity and intensity of poetry magnifies the need and the challenge of finding that perfect word. And while I am defeated by this challenge virtually every time, the practice of wracking one's brain for the best possible word may be one of the things contributing to my ongoing vitality. It is, at least, a great way to stave off Alzheimer's, and, at best, an irreplaceable way to enrich one's own life. And every time I attend these sessions of the Academy of American Poets I feel that surge of energy once again that I associate with excellent poetry and that quest, usually unrealized but nobly attempted, to arrange the best possible words in the best possible order.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Sometimes as I'm crossing New York Harbor on the way via ferry from Staten Island to Manhattan, I listen to books on my iPod Shuffle. Yesterday, as I made this twice-daily crossing, I heard Adam Gopnik read from his own book called Angels and Ages: A
Short Book about Lincoln, Darwin, and Modern Life. He had come to the part where he recounts what a doting father Darwin was to his 10 children, and how much he especially loved his slightly awkward but intensely inquisitive daughter named Annie.
Gopnik was noting that Darwin saw much of himself mirrored in Annie's habit of reading the dictionary in search of new words to capture her experiences. He added, I assume from his own experience, that there are few emotions as powerful as a father's love for a daughter who seems to be an emerging reflection of himself.

Gopnik even suggests that Darwin's long delay in writing Origin of the Species had to do with his abiding affection for his children and his desire to spend as much time as possible playing and learning with them. And above all, his adoration for Annie seemed boundless. I should have been prepared, though I wasn't, for the revelation that came a paragraph or two later that at the age of 10 Annie contracted tuberculosis and succumbed to the disease shortly thereafter. Just as the Staten Island Ferry was passing the Statue of Liberty, I could feel little tears streaming down my cheek, and I found myself wondering what made this so poignant for me.

All parents love their children dearly and any time they lose a child, especially before she or he can develop into an adult, it must be nearly more than anyone can bear. I probably should just leave it at that. But...for Darwin, with his almost supernatural observational powers and his passion for inquiring and knowing, the loss of a daughter, who seemed to share these very same remarkable capacities, is an even greater calamity that only someone like Darwin himself can grasp fully.

At any rate, I love Gopnik's book, especially the parts regarding Darwin, about whom I knew so little. In this book, he is not only a great scientist, he is a great humanist and a great human being as well by virtue of his enormous capacity for love and for his unquenchable desire to know the world as completely as possible.

Friday, October 16, 2009

New York's Future

In yesterday's New York Times there is an artist's conception of a possible future for 42nd Street. It shows a light rail system running the full length of this great throughfare, from the Hudson to the East River. It is a vision of a great city without cars, a vision that seems so utterly appealing to me and so very alien to many, many others. I have often thought how much more livable New York would be if traffic were restricted to taxicabs and buses only. So many thousands take the subway or just walk anyway, why not make this leap, or the even more expensive but ultimately more cost-effective leap to light rail. By the way, for those who don't know Manhattan, although the subway is great for going uptown and downtown and although there is a subway shuttle from Grand Central Station to 7th Avenue, it remains a challenge to get across town almost anywhere in Manhattan. The resistance to limiting car use cannot be overestimated, however. It's partly about a fear of change, it partly comes from merchants who fear the loss of a certain class of consumers, but I honestly believe it has more to do with an impoverished vision of what could be. Our default, taken for granted reaction, even in a city like New York, is to get into our car and go, no matter how difficult the traffic or how inconvenient the parking situation. That default response has to be revised.

Perhaps a kind of "nudge" would help. There is a relatively new book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein called Nudge about the small changes we can make to gently push people's behavior in a new direction. In the case of overreliance on cars, one way to do this is to make a much better and more public case for the virtues of mass transportation. These authors write about a campaign in Texas to limit littering that used the phrase "Don't mess with Texas" to get people to take seriously the need to control littering. It worked. Littering declined dramatically, almost entire attributable to this ad campaign. Maybe New York, if it's really serious about this, needs to promote the idea that, for instance, "You meet the coolest people in the subways," and then build a whole campaign around the stories of all these cool people you will run into when you travel underground. Another thought is to use data people can understand. I will never forget the campaign against smoking in the late 60's that said: "For every minute you smoke you lose a minute of your life." That was incredibly powerful. What would be the equivalent for the dangers of using our automobiles excessively? I honestly don't know, but I cannot imagine there isn't a simple, pithy. perhaps graphic way to convey how much more responsible you are when you use mass transit than when you drive. I look forward to the time when the default behavior for traveling around the city for the vast majority of people is anything BUT using a car.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven

Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven is the fourth play we saw during the previous weekend. It is a small play in a small theatre about a very big subject. Nothing less than the struggles that occur when East meets West.

Mahida is an Iranian woman who has come to the United States to be a University student and has fallen in love with reading and studying literature. She is a beautiful character, with a personality that seems to be a rich mix of Eastern and Western qualities. She is formal, serious, and exceptionally courteous, but also open, curious, and emotionally vulnerable. She meets an Anglo man, who is visiting his mother, by the lonely pier of an unnamed island community. It is not clear why she is there but she says she was to meet her brother who apparently has been delayed. It is late, there are no more ferries to the mainland, and no hotels are available either. The man who does not seem to like his rather closed-minded mother very much and appears to be looking for companionship is clearly drawn to Mahida. He invites her to spend the night at his mother's home and makes every effort to demonstrate to Mahida that his intentions are entirely honorable, which, in fact, they are. After some moments of hesitation, she agrees to do this, and in the next scene we see her awaking on the living room couch as the man's mother quietly enters.

As the man's mother converses with Mahida, we learn rather quickly how suspicious of strangers she is and how readily she stereotypes Mahida. Mahida, however, seems unconcerned and very effectively brushes off whatever is objectionable in the mother's words and demeanor. She joins the man in a long walk along the pier near the mother's home and shows a deep appreciation for the man's love of art and his desire to pursue life as an artist, an ambition ridiculed by his mother. In the meantime, the brother finally shows up while the two young people are away and insists on waiting for his sister in the mother's home. Though wary, she allows this, and they gradually launch into a full scale debate regarding the virtues of cultural life in the United States versus cultural life in Iran. We learn that the brother quit university in Iran to join a Madrassa where a radical approach to Islam is taught, and we, as audience members, gradually see that these two are ciphers for the many dogmatic people who populate both countries. Neither is open to the other's perspectives, both are deeply suscious of the other. The brother, however, seems more physically threatening and tension grows as their conversation becomes increasingly heated.

The action then switches back to the man and Mahida who return from their walk to find only the brother waiting for them. The brother claims at first that the mother has gone out, but the man knows his mother would never vacate her home while a stranger lingered there. We await the revelation that the brother has somehow harmed the mother when the brother suddenly strikes out in a most alarming way. Everything on stage begins to scatter (sitting in the first row, we almost got hit with flying debris), as the brother puts the man in a hammerlock and a stranglehold from which he cannot escape and hisses that this is what it is like to be caught, to be trapped, to be imprisoned in one's own home. The stage goes dark and the final scene shows the man, Mahida, and the man's mother with a terrible bruise on her face leaving the island on the ferry. They say very little but the mother is now completely silenced.

In some ways, this is a flawed play. Having the brother inflict violence on the mother seems like a questionable move to me, as it turns us entirely against the brother and causes all of his arguments, strongly articulated in the play, to be compromised. Still, there was much food for thought, especially about America's own dogmatism and complicity in spreading violence in the Middle East, and once again, the post-performance discussion was instructive here, as far too many of the audience members took the brother to task for his fundamentalism but were almost entirely blind to the mother's own intolerance and closed-mindedness.

To quickly conclude, I just want to say I am increasingly grateful for the many lessons provocative theatre can teach. This is the kind of theatre I find myself yearning for and often finding in New York. As a postscript, let me add that we saw the much acclaimed God of Carnage last night. Superbly acted play, very funny and very clever, but, for me, a little empty, lacking some of that insight into the human condition that I think I have received from less celebrated but, in many ways, more thoughtful productions.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Anna Deavere Smith

Some day, if it hasn't happened already, Anna Deavere Smith, the versatile actress who specializes in one-woman shows focused on a timely theme, will be officially recognized as one of the living legends of the American theatre. We saw her Saturday night in her new show Let Me Down Easy and as far as I could tell no one was disappointed. She embodies something like 20 people - many of them celebrities - in this one-woman show about health care and coping with the end of life, and while it is true as Christopher Isherwood pointed out some time ago that we never get to know any of them as well as we might like, we are exposed to a diverse collage of personalities that forces us to think a great deal about the kind of society we have and the kind we want.

Smith takes on the challenge of trying to inhabit folks as varied as Ann Richards, Lance Armstrong, Lauren Hutton, Joel Siegel, and the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, all in their own unvarnished words, and as we are introduced to one person after another who has been abused by our health care system, we are reminded how cruel and uncaring this system can be and how daunting the challenges are as we endeavor to do something about it. It should be noted that these vignettes are also about social class and how differently we treat people depending on their class position. I was most moved by Smith's impersonation of the Dean of the Stanford University Medical school who tells us that our greatest costs go to care for people in their last 6 or 8 months of life. As a society, we are simply too immature and too fearful to talk about this and the thinking such a situation requires us to do. As we make our first, deeply flawed attempts to reform health care under President Obama, Smith's documentary play may be one of the places worth turning to, not so much for new information, but to understand more viscerally the toll that our refusal to act continues to take, particularly on the poor and neglected, but almost as much, on the privileged as well.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Waiting for Lefty

We had such a rich weekend of theatregoing that you're going to be regaled with one post after another about the wonderful shows we witnessed. You have already heard about Carrie Fisher, but on the preceding Friday evening we took in our first Wagner College show of the season - Waiting for Lefty. For those who don't know, Wagner has a nationally recognized theatre program and puts on many fine productions throughout the year. If we can get around to it, we will be seeing Tommy soon, the first musical of their season. And this probably shouldn't be missed, as Wagner specializes in musical theatre. Last year, we saw a fine production of Annie Get Your Gun.

But we kind of prefer straight theatre and we were definitely not disappointed with Clifford Odets' short Depression piece - Waiting for Lefty. This play is one of the first that the famous Group Theatre put on and helped to establish its reputation for hard hitting, politically radical drama. Plot aside, which is only marginally interesting, it has a tone that is both desperate about the poverty facing ordinary workers and a kind of utopian hopefulness about what unions - especially striking unions - could accomplish to bring fair wages to underpaid stiffs. It ends with a powerful clarion call to strike, repeated many times, that is timed beautifully as a kind of culminating crescendo of passion and need. The acting of these kids who are completely disconnected from this time and place is nothing short of miraculous, and must be attributed in large part to the ingenious staging and guidance provided by the Wagner faculty member who directed the play - David McDonald. What really makes this play work is the camaraderie, the playfulness, the incidental talk of the students who play the union members. Their timing is impeccable and just about makes you think you have been transported to this alien time and place and that you are watching actual events unfold before your eyes. Hats off to David McDonald, the Wagner student actors, and the College that supports them in doing such fine work.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Wishful Drinking and Mike Nichols

Wishful Drinking is the title of Carrie Fisher's one-woman show now being presented on Broadway. We saw it Saturday afternoon and enjoyed it all, especially her recounting of her experiences as the daughter of royalty - Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher - and, of course, all the silliness that goes with still being thought of by a substantial portion of the population as the one and only Princess Leia. Her willingness to speak frankly and humorously about her addictions and her mental illness are also a clear highlight and appeal a great deal to a large segment of the audience. Carrie Fisher actually has a marvelous way with words and an uncanny ability to take famous sayings or phrases and to turn them around or inside out. Her gift for words has now been demonstrated many times over as the author of some four books, but was on particularly impressive display in this performance. Her ability to relate to the audience and to improvise her script is similarly seamless.

But we were the recipients of a special treat (or two or three) when invited at the end of the performance to attend a post-performance discussion. We try not to miss these and vacated our mezzanine seats to sit in the orchestra section about 10 rows back. First, the stage director of the play came out and began to talk about how Ms. Fisher's performance has evolved over time. You couldn't help noticing, though, that they put two folding chairs on the stage, one for the stage director and one that remained empty. Could Carrie Fisher herself be coming out to chat after her own exhausting performance? The stage director spoke for another three minutes or so about performances in Boston, D.C., Berkeley, LA, Santa Fe, and San Jose, and how much Ms. Fisher likes to improvise every time she goes to a new place. And then Carrie Fisher appeared to much applause. From thereon, the stage director was ignored and Fisher fielded all the questions. She had the same charm and quick humor shown in her one-person show and told us how much her mother and father, who had each seen it several times, had enjoyed the show. A few more people spoke, including one who asked if she thought she would win the Tony, to which she could only reply with wry humor, "of course I do." Then someone from the middle of the 8th row asked to speak. They weren't going to give him the microphone because he was too far in, and Carrie said she would be able to hear him without the mike. Then she realized who was trying to make the comment and said something like, "Well, I'm going to shit a brick." Fisher got out of her chair and sat at the front of the stage as if she wanted to get a better look at the person in question. It turned out to be Mike Nichols, sitting there with a well disguised Diane Sawyer, who mentioned that he had seen an earlier version of the show, as it has been in development for two years, but that it must have gone through some wonderful changes because he now believed it had become "one of the greatest one-woman shows I've ever seen." Carrie Fisher responded appreciatively to Nichols' extremely positive review and seemed to drop her last layer of pretense as she listened to this great theatre and film director praise her show.

A New York moment. One of the greatest stage directors of our time deigning to join the folks at the post-performance discussion and then actually making a comment that drew the attention of the entire audience to his words and position in the theatre. He probably couldn't resist letting a friend know in this very public way how much the show had meant to him. He was, after all, the director of Postcards from the Edge, a film based on Fisher's first book that starred in the Fisher role a little known actress named Meryl Streep, and announced to the world that Carrie Fisher, as screenwriter and conceptualizer, was much more than a pretty face and attractive figure clad in a metal bikini.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

Every Saturday morning between 10:30 and Noon, we walk or take the subway to 43rd Street and 9th Avenue to pick up the organic vegetables that we are entitled to share in as subscribers to a New Jersey organic farm. Known as CSA or Community Supported Agriculture, we pay a relatively small fee up front for the 6 month season and are then able to share in the harvest that is delivered to the city each weekend. At first, the harvest struck us as rather meager, though it was probably good for us to figure out how to use an abundance of kale, but more recently we have received some apples, green peppers, and some very delicious potatoes. Actually, quite a few other things, too, but I can't remember them all. In general, it has been a good thing for us to eat more fruit and vegetables and to get used to picking up the organic food we are entitled to. It can also, unfortunately, be a bit of a pain to take the time every Saturday to make our way to 43rd and 9th, but getting there is almost always fun, as it is a lively area where a lot seems to be going on.

We are thinking that maybe we will adopt a new CSA next year, one that provides a little more variety, but the habit of buying, preparing, and eating vegetables has been a good thing and has definitely contributed to our eating a somewhat healthier diet. Who would have thought that such produce could be so readily available to us city dwellers? Just part of the benefit that comes from living in a city where people want to have it all and will do anything to make sure they get it. Indeed, you could say it is part of the diversity and genuine social consciousness of New Yorkers that these CSAs are available all over the city catering to that variety of tastes that so strongly mark New York life.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Lincoln in New York

We are members of the New-York Historical Society, located at 77th Street and Central Park West, just a few lovely blocks from where we now live. We affectionately call it "N dash Y" because the old fashioned spelling for New York, which the Historical Society still uses has a hyphen in it. So good ol' N-Y threw a preview and reception for members on Thursday night of their new exhibit "Lincoln in New York." It's always fun to go to these because the wine flows freely, the crowds don't get too large, and the exhibits tend to be pretty good, too. This one was no exception. The wine did indeed flow, accompanied by plenty of eats that were brought out by waiters on little trays, dainty little appetizers, all of them quite good. But especially nice was the exhibit itself, shedding new light on the many ways in which New York City helped to shape the political rise of Abraham Lincoln.

A lot of people know that Lincoln's Cooper Union speech delivered in New York City in February 1860, months before he became the nominee of the Republican Party, helped to build support for his candidacy when he made his most elaborate and convincing argument to date against the extension of slavery. But just as interesting is how the notoriety that resulted from this speech inaugurated a connection between New York and Lincoln that grew progessively stronger over the last five years of his life. In some ways, no other city, save Washington, did so much to influence his presidency, though not always, by any means, to his benefit.

I was surprised to learn, for instance, that despite strong support from powerful newspaper editors like Horace Greeley at the New-York Tribune, New York City remained strongly opposed to Lincoln in both 1860 and 1864, though New York State and its 35 electoral votes did go for Lincoln both times. What was there about New York City that so disliked Lincoln, at least until his death? For one thing, despite New York's liberal reputation, it had strong pro-slavery elements, hardened by New York's highly profitable connections to the southern cotton trade. For another, New York was an often wild, diverse, slightly crazy place (not unlike today) that did not easily go for the newly favored man. Samuel F.B. Morse, one of the early holders of a patent for the telegraph, was one of many entrepreneurial New Yorkers who supported slavery and detested Lincoln, not just because slavery was good for the economy, at least as he saw it, but because any attempt by the federal government to interfere in local affairs was anathema to him, especially as he saw slavery as part of the natural condition of humankind, some belonged on top while others should remain on the bottom. He was hardly alone in this opinion in the New York City of that era.

Another New York event that caused Lincoln great pains were the draft riots of 1863, which resulted in the deaths of 120 civilians and became the "worst civil disorder in the nation's hisory--except for the Civil War itselt." Ostensibly precipitated by opposition to the new conscription laws, the riots were a complex mix of racial hatred and racist targeting of a burgeoning community of free Blacks in New York and the understandable frustration arising from the thousands of properous New Yorkers who were permitted to exempt themselves from military service by purchasing "substitutes."

One other point regarding New York's connection to Lincoln. During his first visit, the time he gave the Cooper Union speech, he visited the photographic gallery of one Mathew Brady. Brady's ability to bring out the contours of Lincoln's craggy face, to show off his height, and to convey the seriousness of his entire demeanor - this, as much as anything, contributed to his popularity and to the sense that here was a man who could be entrusted with the country's weighty affairs. The cards that were made from this one photograph, before the famous Lincoln beard appeared, were duplicated by the thousands and became, for many people, their only visual introduction to Lincoln. The picture had to be perfect, and, by most accounts, it was.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Just Sitting

Sometimes it's nice just to sit. One new favorite place to do that is our very own terrace that extends from the Upper West Side apartment we recently moved into. It perches just above a row of trees and sits maybe 500 feet from a line of skyscrapers, so you get that sense of being in the city without feeling too closed in. And it's situated far enough away from the street, so that the sound of children playing on a nearby playground during the day and crickets humming in the evening actually drown out most of the traffic noise.

I've noticed that one favorite sitting place for some people, though I haven't really tried it myself, are the center islands that separate the north and south routes on Broadway above Columbus Circle. Even though the traffic continues to rush by, the benches placed on these dividers frequently attract folks who just want to sit. No reading for them usually. Just a little sitting and perhaps some chatting with fellow sitters. These places seem to draw a lot of regulars who enjoy sitting right at the center of all the action.

Some of my other favorite sitters are the booksellers who display their merchandise on folding tables all along Broadway and who spend most of their day sitting, often skimming through the books they are trying to sell, looking as interested in them as possible, in hopes of hustling up another sale or two. Other noteworthy sitters are the stoop sitters. New York is just covered with stoops, those steep staircases that were originally used to provide direct access to the parlors of many well-to-do homes. Today, as in earlier times, people love to sit on these stoops, especially in the nice weather. You see them all the time, sometimes alone in a kind of quiet reflection, other times amiably sharing the latest news with their neighbors.

And, say, speaking of nice weather, perhaps my favorite sitters of all gravitate to the tables and chairs that seem to appear almost magically outside thousands of restaurants in Manhattan every time the weather is warm and the rain holds off. New Yorkers love to eat outdoors; sometimes you think they like it more than anything else. And there are few things as festive as outside diners. They always appear to be having so much fun. As you stroll past the hundredth area where smiling, animated, satisfied diners gather, you can't help thinking maybe I should be doing that, too. A thought that restauranteurs all over the city, I am sure, happily plant in many a pedestrian's brain, which, all by itself, nicely explains the enduring prevalence of outdoor dining in New York.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Pleasure of Reading Obituaries

A few posts back, I mentioned that when I read the New York Times I like to turn to the business section right after reading the main news section. It hit me the other day that part of the reason for this is that the obituaries tend to be tucked into the back of the business news, and that perusing the obituaries constitutes some of the most satisfying and enlightening newspaper reading that I do.

Take Tuesday's obits. There is one about Peg Mullen, the woman who was outraged when she was informed by the military that her son had been killed in Vietnam by accident by his own side's artillery, often referred to as "friendly fire," a phrase which also became the title of a best-selling book and award winning TV movie. Mullen, who relentlessly labored to learn the full story behind her son's death, was never convinced by the military's version of what happened, despite the fact that C.D.B. Bryan, the author of "Friendly Fire," accumulated considerable evidence supporting the military's claims. In the process, Mullen became a fierce anti-war activist. She lived to be 92 and strongly protested US involvement in both the Persian Gulf War and the current occupation of Iraq. She also wrote her own book called "Unfriendly Fire: A Mother's Memoir."

Obituaries like this one remind me of the arc of remarkable lives of ordinary people, of how people respond to adversity, of how vigilantly people sometimes work to uncover the truth, and how a traumatic event can transform one's life. I must admit that I am both heartened and horrified to read about a life like this. Encountering a clear and concise account of such a life changes how you think about your own short time on earth.

Or from the same day's paper, consider the life of Ben Feder, who died at the age of 86, and helped establish the Upper Hudson River Valley as a respected region for winemaking. He hit it big in the mid-1970s with a seyval blanc grape which resulted in a "deliciously fruity, off-dry white wine" that attracted favorable attention for the first time in 1977. According to the obituary, this didn't happen by accident. It occurred as a consequence of careful study and repeated experimentation. In time, his wines became so popular and so well thought of that the official chef of the Mayor of New York City chose them as his house wine.

Very different from the life of Peg Mullen to be sure, but just a tiny reminder of the many ways there are to live a full life. And just about any time you review the New York Times' obituaries you are reminded again of the striking fact that human lives can go in a million different directions, and in so many cases make a contribution worth noting and honoring.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Art of the Steal

The New York Film Festival is winding down, but the highlight of the Festival has by all accounts already taken place. Despite being a documentary about an unlikely subject, it enjoyed highly enthusiastic, sell-out audiences who apparently couldn't get enough of this tale of one of the greatest private art collections in the world. I am referring to the Barnes Collection in Merion, Pennsylvania, about 5 miles from Philadelphia, where Dr. Albert Barnes so scrupulously gathered and displayed his extraordinary collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, long before they were popular or recognized as valuable, and which in time came to be regarded as one of the great collections of modern art ever assembled. The film is "The Art of the Steal," and it is a story, not just about that great collection, but even more about the tug of war between the purists who insist that Dr. Barnes' collection must never be disturbed and the Philadelphians who want to bring it once and for all to the big city.

Should this great collection stay in the little town of Merion, where visitors must schedule their visits ahead of time and are restricted to a limited number of dates, or should it be moved to the great city of Philadelphia, where it can be viewed by millions and, in turn, earn Philadelphia new bragging rights as the site of one of the world's great art collections? Dr. Barnes, we are reminded, insisted throughout his life that his collection should never be moved or disturbed. He was very clear about how the art should be displayed and how the different influences on the art should be demonstrated. The tranquil setting of his home, with its beautiful gardens and relaxing grounds is part of the appeal of this site, as is the way that he placed many paintings very close to each other on the same wall, to show their similarities and to help the viewer see how different styles of painting have evolved over time. This crowding of many paintings on a single wall strikes some critics as detracting from the art, but Barnes saw it as instructive and as part of the European tradition. It is worth noting that some of the greatest paintings in the world are in the Barnes, but perhaps the most noteworthy of them all is one that Barnes specifically commissioned from Henri Matisse and that is ostensibly forever emblazoned on the walls of Barnes' house, just below the windows of the very tall ceiling of his stately home. It is called "Dance II," and by itself is worth a visit to the Barnes.

In any case, in the end, the controversy over the Barnes Collection has little to do with the aesthetics of art, the thing that mattered to Barnes most during his lifetime, and much more to do with the economics of art. A collection like the one that Barnes compiled is big business. Where it goes means crowds, new revenues, new interest in any part of Philadelphia that can snare it. This represents the heart of the controversy and this hard fought issue becomes the main subject of this much praised film.

As a two-time visitor to the home in Merion who had to schedule special visits to the site and put up with all those great paintings crowded onto a single wall, I must admit that I prefer that the paintings be left undisturbed. Let the people do whatever is necessary to see these works on the site that Dr. Barnes designed for them. It is well worth the effort.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Central Park at Dusk

Riding the circuit on your bike in Central Bike is a delightful experience any time, but it can be especially nice at dusk. As you go around before the sun has actually disappeared behind the horizon, it is still light and the people continue to walk and stand and linger in the park. They don't want to leave. But as the minutes pass and the light begins to fade, so the people very gradually, one by one, seem to disappear. You don't really see them go, but you know that as you cycle through the Park there are many fewer pedestirans than there had been earlier and fewer still as you come around again. It is getting darker now, almost hard to see, but the afterglow of the sun creates brilliant and colorful reflections on the skyscrapers that surround the Park and the little streetlamps that can be seen so vividly now, even though they have been on for some time, add to the magic. Funny, even the street lights that punctuate the unacknowledged intersections of the park seem so lovely in their bright projections of green, yellow, and red, and the ponds that catch that evening light remind you of the rich black and white pallet that Woody Allen used in his greatest New York movie - Manhattan.

Now it's too dark to keep riding and the walkers are still more scarce. You look for your exit just past one of those glowing stoplights and just in front of a large statue of a Civil War hero whose name you can never remember. Reluctant to dismount, you continue on the cinder path that leads to the intersection of Central Park West and 69th Street. The street lights help but potholes and hidden perils abound that can upend a two-wheeler. Go slow and watch carefully, we repeat to ourselves. Almost home now. The light is fading still more and there is no more time for riding, but the City takes on its own electrified glow, a glow that cannot quite rival nature's but that for city folk has a beauty and charm that also merits our attention and our appreciation. Good night park. Good night potholed streets. Good night skyscrapers. Good night darkening sky. Good night moon. Another day in the city has come to a glorious end.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Rhubarb at the Theatre!

We were caught in a near riot that almost erupted into full scale verbal warfare last Saturday night during a post-performance discussion of the David Mamet play about a power struggle between a professor and his female student called Oleanna. Oleanna is a complex and often ambiguous story of a stormy relationship between an almost tenured professor and his troubled student, struggling to pass his course. They seem to need something from each other, as they meet something like four different times during the course of the play, all in the professor's office, but their attempts to communicate with each other only seem to make their situation progressively worse. As everything crumbles around them, especially for the professor who by the time of the fourth meeting has been accused of attempted rape and has lost his chance at tenure, he lashes out at his student when she chides him for calling his wife "baby" over the phone. As the play ends, the furniture is scattered all over the room, the student has been thrown to the floor, and the professor seethes with desperate anger.

The professor, who seems to want to be helpful can also be seen as sexually exploitative, while the student who strikes you as naive and confused during their first encounter comes across as manipulative and revengeful near the end. Who they are and what they really want is never made clear, but Mamet writes the play in such a way as to induce viewers to take sides and reach conclusions about motives and goals that are only partially supported by the action. Is the professor just a pompous and condescending pedagogue or really out to seduce his student? Is the student really as clueless as she seems at first, or is she doing this to somehow hold the professor accountable for his offenses with her, other female students, and institutional sexism in general? We really don't know, but the play seems to bring people's anger about such situations to the surface and tends to accentuate our leanings, either toward the male professor, on the one hand, or the female student, on the other.

In the post-performance discussion, which included a New York City Cultural Commissioner and a moderator, the audience felt restless and upset from the beginning. Before the first question could be answered, someone from the middle of the audience yelled, "go deeper!" and when the commissioner attempted to answer this first question in a somewhat stilted manner, someone else shouted, "you sound just like the people from the play." As the discussion went on, when someone either on stage or in the audience expressed support for one or the other characters, you could hear people exclaiming "Oh, give me a break!" Or "That's not what this play was about!" In general, I would say there was less sympathy for the female student and much more antipathy toward her than toward the professor. A number of men tried to lecture the audience about the true subject of the play - a well meaning professor manipulated by a power hungry feminist - but there were quite a few women as well who interrupted various speakers in mid-sentence, and who said things like: "That professor should have thrown her to the floor. I was glad to see him do that. She was begging for it." On the whole, there was this general unruliness that I guess is not unlike some of the healthcare "discussions" we have heard about lately. Are people more rude or impolite than in the past? Almost certainly not. I mean these are people in their 60s and 70s who are saying these things at the top of their voices. Surely, they learned how to conduct themselves in a public discussion. No, I think it is another sign of how fed up people are with a kind of political correctness, an expectation to act in a certain way, and the consequences that result when you're suckered into helping somebody out. We are entering the age of Ayn Rand again in some ways, where selfishness and self-interest are increasingly regarded as the wisest policies.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Taylor Branch

Just a day after enjoying the privilege of seeing Robert Caro, I went to a local Barnes and Noble to hear the other great biographer of our time talk about his quirky new book about the Clinton Presidency. This person is, of course, Taylor Branch and his richly deserved fame as a biographer derives from his monumental 3-volume history of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In many ways, Branch's history is even more breathtaking than Caro's, because its sweep is so enormous and the number of secondary and tertiary characters so numerous. Branch is similar to Caro, though, in believing that he must tell long, deeply rooted historical narratives in order to capture the authentic Dr. King and the real story of how the Civil Rights Movement unfolded.

Branch was at the Upper West Side B&N surrounded by about 100 people when I arrived just before he began his remarks on Wednesday evening. This was nothing like the Caro talk, just an author and bookstore trying to sell some books, but this didn't prevent Branch from being an energetic and voluble storyteller who more than anything wanted us to know that it was Clinton's idea to have Branch compile these interviews throughout his Presidency in order to have an honest and relatively unfiltered account of what it was like to be President over the years Clinton served. What resulted was The Clinton Tapes, not a book that Branch particularly wanted to take responsibility for and that he eventually found difficult to compose, in part owing to the fact that it was impossible to write himself out of the story. Over 70 times during Clinton's presidency, Branch sat down with Clinton to get a first-hand sense of how we he was experiencing the Presidency. These interviews were conducted late at night at the White House, and when each was completed, Branch would drive himself home in his pickup truck back to Baltimore (?) and record his own remembrances of what it was like to interview Clinton. One of these Branch tapes actually opens the audio version of this book.

Who knows how The Clinton Tapes will be received, though it's unimaginable that it won't be a bestseller. What I do hope, though, is that this book will remind us how smart and wide-ranging Clinton's mind was, and what a tremendously bright and all-encompassing man we had in the White House for 8 years.

Taylor Branch, a great historian and a good friend, is himself intent on conveying this, as well as the fact that for all his flaws, Clinton's heart was almost always in the right place. As I listened to Branch talk about the Clinton book and how he had known Clinton for over 45 years, I also became convinced that Taylor Branch was a good and fair man who wanted to give us a revealing portrait of Clinton as President. I, for one, look forward to reading it.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Something Small

The posts on this blog have been about such big subjects lately that I, for one, hanker for something small, something simple, something, you know, excruciatingly ordinary. And what could be more ordinary than the need to use the bathroom on the Staten Island Ferry.

Now, in all frankness, about the time I board the ferry I am primed, once we pull out of the harbor, to sit down to relieve myself. But on the ferry, interestingly enough, you can never have it all, and here's what I mean by this. There are something like 5 or 6 ferries, all slightly different models that rotate taking people back and forth between Manhattan and Staten Island. Some are older and some are newer, some have snack bars and some don't, but none is perfect, particularly when it comes to using the toilet, and you never know which disadvantage you will be facing. For some inexplicable reason, all toilets (and I mean all) that have actual wooden toilet seats do not have proper door latches and so the doors themselves cannot be fixed and are thus subject to even the lightest of breezes. So while your bottom may be relatively comfortable, you must suffer the anxiety of never quite knowing when the stall door will swing open to reveal you in this most humble of positions.

On the other hand, there are bathroom stalls whose doors work perfectly, but in all of those cases (and I mean all) the toilet seats are entirely absent and in their place all that is available are the coldest imaginable stainless steel rims. The only way to make a sit tolerable is by spreading shredded sheets of toilet paper on this thin rim of steel, which also doesn't work very well because the toilet paper itself often tears into pieces as you attempt to extract it from the roll.

So there you have it, a tiny little object lesson in not being able to get everything that you want, not even when you're trying to respond to one of the most basic requests that nature makes of us, right there on the Staten Island Ferry.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Robert Caro on Sense of Place in Biography

This post offers just a few brief comments regarding Robert Caro's talk on the sense of place in biogaphy given at the Leon Levy Center for Biography last Tuesday night. Almost the whole talk was based on some comments I have heard him make a number of times before, but I loved every minute of it anyway. Caro speaks with tremendous energy and enthusiasm, sometimes a bit awkwardly; he is not at all glib or particularly articulate, but he gets the point across beautifully nevertheless. And his point, this time, was to convey how much a place shaped Lyndon Baines Johnson's life. This place was the Hill Country of Texas, which stretches for some 300 miles west of Austin and covers something like 24,000 square miles. When LBJ grew up in one small part of this vast area - Johnson City - and even when Caro and his wife and sole research assistant, Ina, went to live there for close to three years to absorb that sense of place, only a few hundred people were living in Johnson City. More than anything, what Caro wanted to get across was how lonely and desolate and isolated this part of Texas was, and how much LBJ and his mother, especially, hated this isolation, and the incredible drudgery that went with living in a place where neither electricity nor running water were available. In Path to Power, Caro's set piece of what it was like to do laundry with nothing more than lye and well water has become a classic, and he did not dwell on this in his talk. But he did recount how Lyndon and his brother Sam would sometimes wait for hours on the main road (or more accurately rut) of Johnson City just waiting for a car to pass and perhaps even stop for a chat in their tiny town. This rarely happened. Caro described the nights in Johnson City when the only thing that could be heard was the sound of animals gnawing on the bones of fallen prey, and he emphasized how hard this was especially on people like Lyndon's mother, who was nearly driven mad by the loneliness.

The reason all of this mattered so much for the life of LBJ was that when he finally reached Capitol Hill in the early thirties, as the hardest working secretary to any United States Congressman, he never seemed to stop moving. He was driven, as few people have been driven, to change the conditions of people's lives. And more than anything he wanted to "bring the lights" to the Hill Country, something he accomplished almost immediately upon being elected as the Hill Country's representative to Congress in 1937. The Hill Country made him, and how he lived there and what he eventually did about it would be most monumentally echoed in the torrent of Great Society programs that he signed into law in the mid-sixties as the 36th President of the United States.

I don't know of another biographer who is better able to explain through the accumulation of dozens of tiny details the psychology of why people do the things they do. And no one, perhaps ever, has shown as powerfully as Caro how place influences and motivates actions. For those lucky enough to be there, Caro explained it all on Tuesday night.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Robert Caro at Leon Levy Center for Biography

Robert Caro, the most arresting biographer of our time, spoke the night before last at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the City University of New York Graduate Center at 5th Avenue and 34th Street. The event was first come first served, so I arrived about an hour early and was able to secure a good seat for myself and Karen. After holding Karen's seat for 40 minutes, I got up briefly to go to the bathroom. I noticed that the auditorium was almost full. As I did so, a very tall figure sidled over to us to ask if my seat was available. It was Bill Bradley, the former Presidential candidate and Senator and great basketball star. I told him that if he really didn't have a good seat, we would gladly vacate our seats for HIM, but it turned out that there were VIP seats waiting for him even closer to the front. This is just a small indicator of two things really: 1)how readily one encounters well known figures in New York; 2)how much people - both the ordinary (us) and the extraordinary (Bradley) wanted to see and hear this great biographical documenter of two transformative power brokers - Robert Moses and Lyndon Baines Johnson. I should add that Leslie Stahl, who looked stunning, was sitting about five rows in front of us as well.

And after the introductions were made and Robert Caro rose to deliver his talk on the writing of biography, you could feel the warmth toward this man and the admiration for his accomplishments. Caro himself, now almost 74, seemed incredibly fit and beamed with the radiance of someone who knew he had already accomplished a great deal. His work, which dazzles you with intricate detail, bold insights and startling new perspectives, not just about his main subjects, but about a whole host of secondary characters - from Sam Rayburn to Richard Russell - is as influential as biography gets. Indeed, his portrait of LBJ was seen by some historians as so biased and so one-sided, but also so definitive, that it led a number of them to write their own counter-lives, most prominently in the case of the scholar Robert Dallek, who penned a 2-volume account of LBJ's life that he consciously strived to make a model of balanced, unsensationalized reporting.

In any case, Caro's books are not only fascinating, they are fun to read. When the first volume of the LBJ biography, which became Path to Power, was serialized in the New Yorker back in the mid-1970s, I can remember waiting impatiently for the next week's issue to arrive. The story he was telling was that compelling and that dramatic.

On Tuesday night, he spoke about the Sense of Place in biography, and how biography cannot endure unless that sense of place is conveyed in the lives biographers recount. In the case of LBJ, he said that were two places, in particular, that needed to be captured for the reader: The Texas Hill Country of the 1920s where LBJ grew into adulthood; and the world that surrounded Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., which LBJ first encountered at the age of 23 in the depths of the Great Depression. More about the work of capturing that sense of place in tomorrow's post.