Monday, March 30, 2009

Creating and Consuming

"Life's a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!"
Auntie Mame

The novel Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis is the only novel I ever laughed out loud at while reading. (The movie with Roz Russell isn’t nearly as funny as the book.)

This idea stuck with me. How much does each of us feast on the parts of life that are within our reach? For me, the literal part of that idea escaped me for much of my life. As a girl I was a “picky” eater. In another decade I probably would have been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but in the late 60s/early 70s I was just picky. I couldn’t eat anything except chicken, bacon, hamburger, English muffins, and bunny food--lettuce, celery, carrots, cucumbers.

When I went away to college, I had never eaten a scrambled egg or a slice of pizza or a frankfurter. My parents did ask my pediatrician about this strange, limited diet. He said that I was healthy and that I would grow out of it.

I eventually did. In college I slowly branched out to more normal eating patterns, topping out with fried conch when I sailed to Bimini with the Georgia Tech Sailing Team. I reached the next plateau during my first trip to France. I did a Butterfield & Robinson bicycle tour of the Dordogne to get over a broken heart and along the way connected with a deeper level of appetite, of the desire for and satisfaction in the taste of food.

The flip side of the desire for food is cooking. Can you create that which you desire? Not surprisingly, I am not a natural cook at all. I have a few things that I have been able to make well, but it feels forced and labored.

And so I decided to take a cooking class, starting at the absolute beginning. The city offers many opportunities to learn to cook. I chose the descendants of Peter Kump’s school, now called the Institute of Culinary Education. It is a professional school that has a recreational division. And that was part of the thrill—using professional grade kitchens with professional instructors.

This beginner class was three, three-hour sessions. A perfect amount to get your toes wet (and which I heartily recommend to anyone looking for a lovely culinary experience). There were 20 of us, in this off-semester, March program. Quite a diverse lot, several couples, all ages. And people who knew even less than I! What struck me was how uncertain we were together. How do you chop a scallion? Exactly which part gets cut?

It’s a hesitancy that I find frustrating. I never flinch when looking at a blank page—-I know I can fill it up. I don’t worry when I look at a new piece of music-—I know I can bring the notes to life.

But reading and processing a recipe? That takes so much concentration. And so the course, where I connected a bit with ingredients and the world of professional chefs. What amazing people they are, like musicians, to enter a profession that offers endless heartache to its aspiring ranks.

And speaking of musicians—-two days before my last class I was given a last-minute ticket to Valery Gergiev conducting Prokofiev at Avery Fisher. Music, like, food, is something that we have appetites for and need to consume. I went particularly for the solo piano of Vladimir Feltsman playing the Piano Concerto No. 2. For me it was the thrill of an unfamiliar piece. It did not disappoint, abounding in the distinctive Russian pyrotechnics, with strength of sound and purpose.

But what struck me most was the applause. It was the proverbial thunderous. The piece and performance were good, but not that good. What I was hearing was the yearning of an audience of people starving for beauty, and so thankful to be consuming it.

I left at intermission. It had been a trying day at work, and the piano was the thing I wanted to hear. I ran to the #1 train, where my Metrocard registered a transfer. I was surprised. I had taken the bus up to Lincoln Center, and forgot that they had extended the transfer time to two hours. It’s a tough city, and when it works in unexpected ways—-like registering a Xfer when you thought it would be 2 fares—-it feeds the soul, if just a little bit.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bed, Bog, and Beyond

Before we leave this Celtic month, a nod to The Simpsons, of which I am a declared dissenter. But as few tv shows have St. Patrick’s Day episodes, attention must be paid to the spirit behind its “In the Name of the Grandfather,” if not the execution.

And so I put on my shamrock top and watched the episode on hulu, shortly after its premiere in Ireland/the UK before the US.

The clan flies over to Ireland on Derry Air so that Grandpa can have a drink one last time in O’Flanagan’s pub, where he had grand times in his youth. The ban on smoking inside has changed Ireland’s pub culture, and that sets things in motion.

My favorite part was the verbal bit at the end, when the Garda come in:

“It’s a smoke-easy you’re running then”
“So it’s escaping you’re thinking of then”

Homer: “I can’t tell if those are questions or statements”

Garda: "So it’s our syntax you’re criticizing then”

Between this and the swipe at Bloomsday celebrations, I think Joyce would have smiled, and that’s what’s important.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Life and Death on this Vernal Equinox

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. . . . . His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

I awoke on this first day of Spring to the surprising sound of large, wet snowflakes hitting my bedroom windows, and the thought of Joyce’s haunting last paragraph of Dubliners filled my soul. The snow brought a strange confluence of hope, beauty, and death in this week replete with things Irish and the departed.

I went to two memorial services this week, one for Lou Dorfsman, whom I did know personally, and one for John Updike, whom I did not. In between, I celebrated the Feast of St. Patrick at a benefit concert for Smile Train, featuring the Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, and Natasha Richardson died.

Lou’s memorial service was held at the Great Hall of Cooper Union, which he graduated from and was a trustee for for decades. It was organized by his daughter, Elissa. The hall was filled with a lifetime of colleagues from his enormous career at CBS (which I talked about when he died last October). Tributes from George Lois, Ivan Chermayeff, and Peter Bradford would have warmed his heart following Bill Wurtzel’s jazz combo that greeted attendees. The service had some tension between a professional memorial, and a family one, as Lou’s three children spoke about “dad.” Not a man of faith but a proud Jew, he would have approved of the lawyer who read from the Kaddish.

The SmileTrain is an international charity that provides cleft lip/palate surgery to those in need, as well as providing training to doctors. Its Smile Pinki, which follows of the story of one young girl in India whose life is drastically changed following the gift of free surgery to correct a cleft palette, won the 2009 Oscar for documentary short. This St. Patrick’s day concert was a benefit for upper level donors (which is my brother) with Ronan’s classic tenor voice filling the Rose Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Colin Powell was a surprise speaker. Is he running for some office? His speech sounded like a campaign speech.

Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker with Live from NYPL organized the memorial for John Updike at the beautiful Celeste Bartos Forum at the New York Public Library. The Faure Requiem was playing as we entered the space. That was lovely. Of all the Requiems, it is the most lyrical. It is built directly on the ancient chant, which for many is simply the sound of the hopeful death of Christian resurrection.

The service opened with audio of John reading from “The Other Side of the Street,” followed by an interview that had been filmed at the library in 2006. Appropriately, in the clip John talks about being born and raised a Lutheran, then changing his denomination twice, first to Congregationalist, then to Episcopalian.

His friends and editors—David Remnick, Roger Angell, Adam Gopnick, Charles McGrath—read from his words and told their personal, entertaining anecdotes. I found the reading of his last poems, published posthumously, to be the most moving part of the evening. The poems from Endpoint are all masterful, beautiful, limning a universe of life with knowledge of its end in poetic exactitude.

For others, “you do not know the day nor the hour” is the harshest truth. Natasha Richardson had no thought that taking a skiing lesson would end her life. Her wake was held at the American Irish Historical Society, a beautiful Beaux Arts building on Fifth Avenue. In a sad twist of timing, her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, had just been there for a reception for the Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowan on Sunday, three days before her daughter’s death.

(Photos: Dorfsman, copyright Charles Orrico, 2008; Updike, Michael O’Neill/Corbis Online)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

T-Shirt Message of the Day: "Made in Australia from Irish Stock"

I’m always very happy to see visitors to this blog from Australia/the exotic sounding continent of Oceania.

Western Australia—Higbury
Victoria City—Epping, Diamond Creek
South Australia City—Adelaide

It’s a combination of the place Australia has in the imagination of the whole world, and its ties to the history of Ireland and a childhood raised on the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. What was the rousing song “Wild Colonial Boy” about, my brother and I wondered.

Surrender now, Jack Duggan,
for you see we're three to one
Surrender in the Queen's high name,
you are a plundering son
Jack drew two pistols from his belt,
he proudly waved them high
“I'll fight, but not surrender,”
said the wild colonial boy

“Around 40,000 Irish convicts were transported to Australia between 1791 and 1867, many for political activity, including those who had participated in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, the 1803 Rising of Robert Emmett and the 1848 skirmishes in the midst of the Famine.”

Robert Hughes confronted this unique aspect of its history in his impassioned opus The Fatal Shore:

“I grew up with a skimpy sense of colonial Australia. Convict history was ignored in schools and little taught in universities--indeed, the idea that the convicts might have a history worth telling was foreign to Australians in the 1950s and 1960s. Even in the mid-1970s only one general history of the System (as transportation, assignment and secondary punishment in colonial Australia were loosely called) was in print: A.G.L. Shaw's pioneering study Convicts and the Colonies. An unstated bias rooted deep in Australian life seemed to wish that "real" Australian history had begun with Australian respectability---with the flood of money from gold and wool, the opening of the continent, the creation of an Australian middle class. Behind the diorama of Australia Felix lurked the convicts, some 160,000 of them, clanking their fetters in the penumbral darkness. But on the feelings and experiences of these men and women, little was written. They were statistics, absences and finally embarrassments.”

The Irish and the English played out their same power struggles on this continent that they did on the British Isles.

One difference is that those whom the “transportation” system didn’t kill outright, or by starvation or disease, grew strong and free and helped to create a new national character that was neither English nor Irish.

The Irish roots of Australia’s population are not much in focus these days. Nicole Kidman’s film didn’t have any allusions to that past (and showed more of a generic Hollywood sensibility than what the world saw in Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave.)

But St. Patrick’s Day is a time to listen to a telling of the story of outlaw/bushranger Jack Donoghue, and look at great photos from last year’s parade in Sydney.

Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem on the Michael Douglas Show

Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Those that I fight I do not hate; Those that I guard I do not love"

Here we are again at the annual focus for things Irish. How sad that this now includes three funerals for men of public service, the result of a new spark of violence in a land which had finally, slowly settled into an era of sanity following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Ireland and death. It’s a strange fate for a people of such warmth, life, and art.

Stephen Carroll, an Ulster policeman, and two British soldiers, Sappers Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar, where murdered by some "new" faction of the IRA. The “historic” IRA formally declared an end to its armed campaign in July 2005 and followed through by scrapping its vast arsenal of guns and explosives that September.

In a turn of sad irony, the Ulster policeman was Catholic. This makes the new IRA stupid as well as murderous. As part of the peace process the Royal Ulster Constabulary became the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2001. It was a good move to help de-militarize general living conditions, to remove the unnecessary “royal” and to help attract Catholics into its ranks so that the police force be a better mirror of those it serves, though Catholics have been policemen throughout the history of the RUC. Denis Donoghue, the literary scholar, wrote a moving memoir of growing up in Warrenpoint, where his Catholic father served on the RUC in the thirties and forties. Of course, he could never get promoted above sergeant.

The world is a different place than when the IRA was at its height in the 1970s and 80s. The people of NI are not tolerating this from all sides (except for some teenagers with a petrol bomb in Lurgan). Hopefully that will become a trait we come to associate with the Irish-—a zero tolerance for homeland terrorism—-instead of a helpless acceptance of the vestiges of a civil war that just won’t burn itself out. Those soldiers were hours away from deployment in Afghanistan. Instead, their bodies were returned home to their families in England for burial.

It’s still a question why England needs formal troops in NI, although the numbers have been scaled back significantly. That military occupier presence in the British Isles itself is such a 20th century idea. We all need a new, bold vision of life, not death, among the wider understanding of “the happy breed of men.”

W.B.Yeats's 1917 poem written at the request of Lady Gregory for her only son who died in the Great War resonates for this tragedy.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

I KNOW that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross, 5
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds, 10
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind 15
In balance with this life, this death.

(A poignantly artful photograph by Cathal McNaughton/Reuters, from an impassioned bit of reporting by John F. Burns for The New York Times.)

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Week of the Familiar

This week was oddly filled with remembrances of things past. I saw a preview for the Broadway revival of West Side Story (disappointing); sang a benefit concert of classic chorale standards (pretty satisfying); and watched one of the last episodes of the long-running series, ER (very satisfying, but them I’m a rank sentimentalist).

The music of West Side Story is part of the DNA of the 2oth century. The main motifs, like Candide, are still fresh, energized, full of life. The singing for this revival wasn’t very strong-—both Maria and Tony were just mediocre. And this in a town where you can’t swing a dead cat without knocking down an annoying but talented soprano and a kick-ass tenor. I didn't like the set, the stage always felt crowded. I don't know why a boy soprano was added to "Someday." The Jets girls were wearing strange shorts. The Sharks were hotter all around, with Karen Olivo as Anita was the best thing in it.

The choral favorites were a joy to bring to life at the end of a long work day. There’s a reason the Mozart Ave Verum Corpus is considered a perfect motet. Another highlight were the pieces from Mendelssohn’s Elijahsung by the professionals: the bass solo “Lord God of Abraham” the tenor solo “Then shall the righteous shine,” and the trio “Lift thine eyes.” The solo voices were both exquisite: expressive, deeply distinctive, seemingly effortless. To experience live, trained, classical singing like that is like watching a talented athlete at the top of his/her game. You keep wondering, how do they do it? Especially if you, say, play golf yourself, then watch Tiger Woods on tv. You have even more of an appreciation of what he can do from your amateur status.

But being a pop culture girl at heart, it was the ER episode that topped the week. It connected the beloved old A team through the story of John Carter, who needs a kidney transplant connected back to when he was stabbed by a psychotic patient 10 years ago.

And so it actually came to pass: George Clooney’s return to television. For fans of the series, which I was for its first 8 years, it was a big deal that he came back, not because of his fame, but because of his place in the show’s history. I’m glad that he respected it. The show was well written, and it played all the chords we wanted to hear. It showed us Carol and Doug working together in Seattle. The gamble that the womanizer Doug Ross would really settle down had paid off in one of the greatest tv fantasies of all time. The last shot we see of Doug is shirtless, in bed with Carol, SNUGGLING.

The Carter/Benton relationship was always my favorite storyline, and in just minutes Noah Wyle and Eriq LaSalle evoked the years of their mentor/student relationship. It reminded me of the great intervention episode, where Carter's colleagues step in to get Carter into drug rehab. It looks like it's not working, that Carter isn't going. The tension and suspense were so well done that I remember them 12 years later. In the last instance we see Carter on the plane, and the camera slowly pans back to reveal Benton sitting next to him. I remember holding my breath for the whole last moments, and crying a little with that reveal, it was so unexpected that that selfish character would put himself out for anyone.

If you’re a fan, you must go join the conversation over at Alan Sepinwall’s.


Monday, March 9, 2009

Do You Hear What I Hear?

I hope not. Barbra Streisand does. So do William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Bono, The Edge, and Pete Townshend.

We suffer from tinnitus, that maddening, elusive condition/damage of the ear that produces continual sound in the absence of external stimuli. The rockers developed it from the loud music/bass amps of their profession. The Star Trek officers from a prop explosion on set in the sixties. Streisand has said that she’s had it since she was seven, and that it’s the cause of her volatile temperament.

I’m most like Babs (minus the temperamental explosions). There was no specific auditory damage for me. I’ve had tinnitus my entire life-—from as young as I can remember. I used to ask my mother “Don’t you hear that?” She thought I was just fooling around, not that I was actually hearing something.

Because my ringing is lifelong it’s not as traumatic as for those with adult onset. I often forget about it, even though it’s a moderate-to-severe case. I’ve had it in both ears, but lately it’s more active in the left.

There was an article about it last month in the New Yorker and it refocused my attention. The author, Jerome Groopman, developed the condition last year, and he writes about his search to find some answers and relief. For tinnitus there is neither.

How to Describe It?

The sound itself is maddening in its very essence. It’s both diaphanous and pointed at the same time. It has no actual pitch-—it’s not is an A, or C, or F—-and yet it modulates all the time, getting higher and lower. It sounds electrical---it “feels” electrical. Sometimes an aggressive fizzing sound is the best way to describe it.

It can get very loud, and yet it doesn’t block out outside sound. I have excellent hearing. When I’m sick it becomes more intense.

Sometimes I’m able to not listen to it, like when I’m in a really engaging conversation. But it is ALWAYS there.

The one saving grace for me is that for some reason, it doesn’t prevent me from falling asleep. On the Tinnitus Sensitivity Scale, that’s what puts you in the catastrophic category: if it keeps you up or wakes you up. That really would be a living hell.

Jerome Groopman went to the University of Buffalo, “which houses one of the major clinical and research centers for the evaluation and study of tinnitus” in his search for answers. The frontiers of tinnitus research are in neurology, which sounds right to me.

There is also the idea that there is quite a spectrum to what we all call tinnitus, that we are not all hearing the same thing. And that there are structural factors—-the shape of the jaw, the drainage of the sinuses—-that play into it.

There has been little scientific research for the condition. “Total funding for tinnitus research in the United States has recently been little more than three million dollars. ‘People don’t realize how complicated tinnitus really is,’ Richard Salvi [of Buffalo University] said. ‘It’s in the same league as epilepsy and many neurological disorders. But so little money is spent on it, so there is almost no scientific database you can build on.’”

That may be changing, and not for a good reason. A large number of our returning troops are on disability for tinnitus and severe hearing loss. “Theresa Schulz, an audiologist who served in the military for twenty-one years, told me that hearing loss accompanying tinnitus is now the No. 1 cause of disability among veterans of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Maybe it will now get some research dollars, for the “audio trauma” onset of the condition. I don’t think that will help we congenital sufferers much.

If I thought about it, I would probably become distraught at this active noise in my head that I cannot control. My coping mechanism has been to disregard it. Mind over matter---if I don’t mind it, it doesn’t matter.

The sound of silence? Never heard it. Not for one single instance.

(top illustration from the New Yorker.)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Steed and Emma, Meet Michael and Fiona

I knew I liked USA’s Burn Notice last year when it premiered, but with the roll out of the second season I realized a big piece of that like is this: Michael and Fiona are the updated, newly corporeal spirits of John Steed and Emma Peel. They have same panache, intelligence, elegance, and chemistry that once set the Avengers apart on the tv landscape.

The duo dynamics are different with similar premises: most fans agree that Steed and Mrs. Peel had a romantic time somewhere in their past. We know that Michael and Fiona did. Most fans believe that Steed and Emma were then “just good friends” to quote from “Escape in Time,” although there are hints of “with benefits”—from the trip they take for her birthday at the end of “Who’s Who,” to her after midnight appearance at Steed’s apartment with a bottle of champagne in “Dead Man’s Treasure.” Ditto Michael and Fi’s relationship. We’ll have to see tomorrow where the second season finale leaves them.

Steed and Michael are the “top professionals”; Mrs. Peel and Fiona are talented women outside of the profession of spying.

Anyone who met Mrs. Peel in the sixties, or the reruns in the seventies was blown away by the independence of this female partner. Especially in the second, color Mrs. Peel season, when Diana Rigg came out from under the black-and-white shadow of leather-clad Honor Blackman into sleek, colorful, soft outfits by Alun Hughes. Which is why I was surprised to read in several interviews with Diana Rigg that she was always baffled that viewers thought Mrs. Peel was so revolutionary. Dame Diana thought Peel was very unliberated, always just doing what Steed said to do.

Now that I see Fiona, I understand what Rigg was saying. (And Diana Rigg herself has lead a highly personal, independent life, so she knows whereof she speaks.) Fiona is the truly strong, independent character. She partners with Michael to help his cases. And she’s in love with him. But she insists that he meet her in the middle—she is not going to give in to his insecurities and fears of intimacy. It’s shared terms or no terms.

Michael and Fiona are a joy to watch—they embody the spirit of male/female at its best: playful, purposeful, skeptical, foolish, and loving. If you can’t find it in real life in happily ever after, it’s at least nice to see once a week on tv.