Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Tis you, 'tis you, must go and I must bide"

There seems to be something sad and deadly about the last days before Labor Day. Princess Diana died on August 31, Mother Teresa on Sept. 5, and now Ted Kennedy on August 26 (which happens to be Mother Teresa’s birthday.)

For generations we Americans have watched in awe the strangest “reality show” that is the Kennedy's story. The scope of their tale alone is compelling: Joe senior and Rose connecting back to the beginning of the last century, his rise through her family’s power in Boston, though slighted and snubbed by the city’s Brahmins.

The effect of World War 11 on the clan: Joe Sr. and his appeasement, defeatist stance as Ambassador to the Court of St. James that ended his own political career; Joseph Jr. dying in a plane explosion during the war, and the effervescent Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy dying in a plane crash in 1948 in France.

The postwar reign and murder of John F. Kennedy. And then Bobby.

These threads of history conspired to move Ted into a leadership position personally and publicly. Whereas JFK was too good looking and RFK too earnest for most people to identify closely with, Ted was the brother that was easiest to understand. He had all the issues of being the youngest in a large, overtly competitive family. He had a comparatively lightweight intellect. He had a reckless side fueled by alcohol, which hurt his family, and in that extremeness that haunted the Kennedys, took the life of a young woman.

How does one man cope with this much pain? This much destiny?

The stories of Ted Kennedy this week focus on the idea of redemption. How Ted’s tireless work in the Senate to deliver tangible help to the working class, to the voiceless was the salvation of his political life, just as his stabilizing second marriage to Victoria probably saved his very life.

Redemption. The perfect concept for Edward Kennedy. Joe Jr.’s entire motivation in life was to be included in the power structure that had kept out Irish Catholics. You don’t get the impression that Joe was a personally religious man, but his own identity was completely informed by both his national roots and faith. He could have tried to assail the power elite by downplaying this twin albatross around his neck, but he did the opposite. He instilled in his family the deepest feeling of “us versus them,” and that they as a family would wield power on their own, proud terms. Very Irish.

The Church will bury this last son of the American royal family. If he believes its teaching, he will be reunited with Rose and Joseph, Joe Jr., Jack, Rosemary, Kick, Eunice, Patricia, Robert. And Mary Jo Kopechne. Dies irae.

Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem.

Lord, all pitying, Jesus blest, grant them thine eternal rest. Amen.

They did not play "Danny Boy" at Kennedy's funeral, but it plays it my head whenever I think of that ritual for him.
Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling 
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer's gone, and all the flowers are dying
'Tis you,'tis you, must go and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer's in the meadow
Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow
'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow

Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You'll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me.

And I shall hear, tho' soft you tread above me
And all my grave will warmer, sweeter be
For you will bend, and tell me that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Little Sheltered Night Music

I’ve been watching the new USA character series, Royal Pains. It’s a piece of fluff about a New York City doctor transplanted to the Hamptons, but what I like about it is how it captures SUMMER. I don’t have a summer house so I daydream a bit in that hour, and try to soak up the colors and texture of the series.

This weekend the daydream took actual form when I visited a family friend on Shelter Island, the “other” NY summer community off of the North Folk of the East End of Long Island.

Shelter Island. For many tv fans the allusion resonates with, “No exes at weddings,” the great wisdom from How I Met Your Mother and Stella’s dream wedding on Shelter Island. Ted and Stella do not get married, and so she is not “the one,” but it is notable for tv to be so site specific, and that the friends make the drive from the city, and get on the ferry (screen grab here!), to Shelter.

The real trek is very scenic, driving out to Greenport, past the Long Island wineries to the ferry service. Then the short ride over to the island, putting me on the water, reminding me of my schooner days, something I don’t revisit very often.

Shelter Island is hilly and dense and lush. It is rural, with less of a defined central town than its South Folk cousins, and no high-end stores.

And it is the home of The Perlman Music Program, an important summer school for young musicians on the grounds of an old 28-acre resort. It was founded by Toby Perlman, Ithak’s wife, fifteen years ago to give musicians 18 to 30 a supportive, focused environment to development their talent. Itzak is oncampus for the school, along with a stellar group of professionals.

The final student performances are a free gift to the island. This week was the Chamber Music Workshop, an intensive program devoted to that repertoire. The concert featured three different quartets performing three eras of music: Beethoven String Quartet in F major; Ravel also in F major; and Dvorak Piano Quartet in E flat.

The caliber of playing was extraordinary in artists so young from around the world, and the programming was inspired. Beethoven, the epitome of classical in that measured, perfect sense. Ravel, impressionistic Ravel, so French, with complicated meter, such deeply emotional sounds. Written in 1903, it seemed to have influenced many 1940s movie scores. Then the big finish with Dvorak: deeply melodic, echoes of gypsy folksongs, a twist of a waltz, a lovely interplay between the viola, the violin, and the cello, with a cello solo in the second movement that was so melodic you could almost hear words in the deep timbre of the cello sound.

The whole Perlman Music Program operation is beautifully professional. And it’s thrilling to think that these budding musicians are keeping this music form alive as part of their hazy, crazy, daze of summer.

The logo motif of the school is done by another type of artist, a man named Peter Dov Varga who can cut ordinary black construction paper in the most extraordinary ways. I saw his work at a fair on the island, but they were all so amazing I couldn’t chose. He is Peter the Paper Cutter.

This week I go back to daydreaming with Royal Pains, until the real thing comes along. And the "no exes at weddings,"that's just good sense.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Because You're Mine, I Walked the High Line

"No one alluded to Ellen Olenska; but Archer knew that Mrs. Welland was thinking: "It's a mistake for Ellen to be seen, the very day after her arrival, parading up Fifth Avenue at the crowded hour with Julius Beaufort--"
Chapter IV, The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

On the Sunday when much of the city was waiting to rejoin the New York of high balls in the third season premiere of Mad Men, I took a tour of the High Line, the new distinct park that opened in June where elevated freight rails were built in the 1930s on the west side. “Park” is not the best descriptive word, promenade is, hence my thoughts easily alighting on Edith Wharton and the Gilded Age, when promenading was an all important part of the workings of society.

Forgotten New York

In the early part of the last century trains brought raw goods to the west side from 34 Street to the St. John’s Park Terminus at Spring Street, with the track going straight through various buildings en route where goods were unloaded.

With the advent of Robert Moses and the interstate sprawl, fewer things were delivered by rail, and in 1980, the last train rolled over the elevated tracks.

For two decades the tracks faded into “forgotten New York,” those disused tunnels and passages and hidden doorways that intrigue urban enthusiasts. Joshua David and Robert Hammond, who lived in the High Line/Meat Packing neighborhood, joined those ranks when they had the idea to turn the 1.3 miles of tracks into a park.

It is some sort of miracle that they went from inception of idea to opening of phase one in just eight years. That’s quite the confluence of money raising, zoning issues, State, Federal, and City regulations redtape, before the enormous architectural/design integration started.

I was surprised to learn that turning railroad lines into recreational areas is a national idea. There is a Washington D.C.,-based group called Rails-to-Trails Conservancy that helps states do just that. This meant that when the Friends of the High Line was formed to help finance the project they did not have to invent the wheel. You can join the groovy Friends with a membership to the High Line.

The High Line is a distinct experience on many levels. You enter by walking up stairs at various points, like entering an elevated subway line. Its first point is at Gansevoort, quite the call-back itself to Dutch New York. That entry point has small trees, while most of plantings are flowers and wild grasses, the work of Piet Oudolf in collaboration with James Corner and Field of Operation.

The promenade is a cross between a boardwalk and a 19th cabled-car street. The artistry of the experience is in the recreation of the wild growth that had reclaimed the tracks in its twenty fallow years. Our tour guide, Lisa Switkin, the project manager from 2004 to 2007, and an associate principal at Field Operations, said that everything had to be dismantled from the original track. Which means they had the option of creating an entirely new space. But they chose to create anew the look and feel of nature encroaching on the man-made infrastructure of commerce and staking its claim. They painstakingly relaid the original track and used a track motif for the benches and certain of the floor flourishes.

Black-eyed Susan are a welcoming dominant flower. Some of the planting will need another year to deliver its maximum effect.

As you walk north you pass open areas and more landscaped ones, and through two tunnels through the buildings where the goods were once unloaded. The one tunnel may be developed into a space for lectures. One open area is the sundeck, with wooden chaise lounges. Where the park turns at 17 street is an amphitheater that overlooks 10 avenue. So nice for the Greeks to make an appearance like that. From various spots you can see the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. But it’s the views of the old buildings that you can almost touch that are the most special. I need to go back at night, when the walk will have en entirely different feel.

"Because You’re Mine . . .
. . . I’d walk the line.” I couldn’t resist an allusion to the million seller from Johnny Cash (although I actually prefer crazy Jaye P. Morgan’s 1960 version).

What I love about the High Line is that it is for walkers only. No bicycles, no rollerblades. Society no longer has the codes that governed life during the The Gilded Age. A Michigan University academic wrote “Anatomy of a Promenade: The politics of bourgeois sociability in nineteenth-century New York.” There are no such set of codes and signs now, but perhaps as the High Line develops, a promenade culture will as well. It could be intriguing, as long as it's not accompanied by whale-bone corsets.

It could draw on even older customs. Years ago I was walking with a friend and I dropped a handkerchief. He picked it up and said, ‘in the Middle Ages, we would now be engaged.’ Ah, those were the days.

(Painting, Childe Hassam, Promenade)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Madness Approaches

Frank Rich has an interesting piece that relates the anniversary of Woodstock to 2009's own version of the mud-in: AMC's screening of Mad Men's third season premiere in Times Square, the crossroads of the world. Each generation gets the communal experience it deserves . . .

Tom Watson and I won't be live blogging this year, but lo and behold our blog godfather James Wolcott is taking on the real-time Sterling Cooper reactions himself.

Lance Mannion
has a rogue's gallery of blog buddies now inhabiting the Don Draper universe. Very well done, everyone.

I have not read a single word of preseason hype, so I don't know what year we will find Don in tonight. But I do hope that Matt Weiner has gotten control of all the storyline and storyarc weaknesses that undercut the exquisite moments of season two, so that we really can luxuriate in this sultry summer fare.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Thanks for Staying Such a Long, Long Time

Les Paul was with us for 94 years, adding longevity to his long list of accomplishments. He was one of those once-in-a-lifetime distinct talents who was truly ageless. Which is why I was surprised to read that he first formed the Les Paul Trio in 1936! I knew he played with Armstrong and Crosby, but I thought it was in the fifties, when they were older and he was very young. Not at all, since he was born in 1915.

And he invented his culture-changing guitar in 1940/41. During the war. This is still feeling like a time warp to me. From the New York Times: "Seeking to create electronically sustained notes on the guitar, he attached strings and two pickups to a wooden board with a guitar neck. 'The log,' as he called it, was probably the first solid-body electric guitar and became the most influential one. 'You could go out and eat and come back and the note would still be sounding,' Mr. Paul once said."

Who else was thinking about electric guitars while the big bands were at the apex of their power? Well, that's what the geniuses do.

His guitar innovation was part of an electronic sound that he would help to usher in. On solo guitar he bridged the gap between the work of Eddie Lang and Django Rheinhardt in the thirties and all the lead guitarists of the rock era to come.

One of the best recordings of his solo guitar work is "It's Been a Long, Long Time," with Bing Crosby and the Les Paul Trio from 1945. There is a stunning clarity to the collaborative interpretation of the piece between Crosby's vocals and Paul's playing. Bing was often over-orchestrated with John Scott Trotter, which makes this exposed, pared down arrangement so special to the Crosby fan. He never needed all that overblown sound, just a talent like Les Paul, who harkened back to Crosby's early work with Lang. (And speaking of the big bands, Harry James also had a #1 hit with this Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn song in 1945. What a pivot point between the quickly fading sound of the big bands and the oncoming sound of electric music!)

Paul would go on to many superlative achievements, including the 1947 "Lover (When You're Near Me)," where he played all 8 instruments before the development of multitrack processing. "How High the Moon" is part of the very fabric of the 1950s.

Here's the Bing & Les duet, which someone put on YouTube just last month as the soundtrack to stills of great film lovers. I think Les would have liked this--he always said he just wanted to make people happy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

QQF: This Is Not Your Mother’s Iced Tea

Summer calls for special drinks that speak to all the desires, nostalgia, and sense of well being that the hot, sultry days of the season conjure in the soul.

My exploration for new summer tastes lead me to Tea Forte’s Tea Over Ice Brewing Pitcher. The Forte teas themselves are exquisite as hot beverages. The ones they create for their iced tea set are exotic: raspberry nectar, Ceylon gold, white ginger pear, and pomegranate blackberry. The brewing pitcher is a lovely design of form and function.

The teas are delicious iced straight, but summer looks for cool sparkle. And so I add dark rum to the raspberry and blackberry ones, with a splash of ginger ale, and Riesling to the white ginger pear.

Happiness in a glass.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Appetites for Life: Julia and Andy

It’s not every week I get swept into two such distinctly different worlds of desire as those of Julia Child and Andy Warhol within 24 hours. I’m feeling a little cultural whiplash here, (and in Andy’s world, those lashes would be a bit further down.) But what connected the two experiences were strong individuals who insisted on living life on their own terms.

It started with a preview screening of Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia. It’s a charming film, perfect summer fare. I love the Julia part, and didn’t love the Julie part, I’m sorry to say, since she is the first blogger to have such a major motion picture. But her gimmick to cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking for her blog and her life in Queens embodied through Amy Adams fell flat for me.

Especially as juxtaposed with Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci creating the genuinely cosmopolitan Childs. The film telegraphed many things beautifully: Julia’s desire to “doooooooo something,” since she did not have children to raise; her courage to walk into the sexist, nationalist Cordon Bleu; her perseverance in testing recipes and editing her cookbook; her élan that gets to grow and sparkle because of her husband Paul.

She was born into a well-to-do Pasadena family, but her six foot stature made her an outsider to the usual country-club wives set. Lucky for her. Her life was much more exotic than that tableau from the moment she volunteered for the OSS during the war to the beginning of her married life in France. The film captures the late 1940s, 50s Paris in all its great chic glory. It’s very sunny in that Paris, with bright saturated colors. This mirrors Julia’s sunny passions, where alcohol is the drug of choice---it pairs well with the exquisite food and brightens the sense of well-being.

There were moments when I thought Streep went a little over-the-top with the voice and the mannerisms, but then that's just who Julia was: extreme height, talent, and sense of self.

The VH1 Roc Doc Lords of the Revolution is a six-part series, and I saw the Andy Warhol episode, with Billy Name, Bibbe Hansen, Bob Weide, and Danny Fields in attendance. This was the dark side of desire, the release of raw energy and art in the Factory. The film is actual footage from the days of Gerard Malanga, Ondine, Lou Reed, Edie Sedgwick, Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, and others, interspersed with talking heads from the few living survivors.

The footage is mostly black and white, mirroring the dark and stark nature of youthful sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Speed is the drug of choice, amping up the inhibitions. Andy is the center, the catalyst, and the voyeur. His darkness quips about filming the suicide of his friends. That’s the thing about darkness—-it knows no bounds.

The VH1 doc is good, but intrinsically counter to its subject matter. It neatly put order onto chaos, a structured narrative sense on what was a free-flowing nonsense of play.

My world is neither as sunny as Julia’s nor as dark as Andy’s. But I love dipping into the waters of each, on my own terms, of course.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Brits: Stop Playing for Keepsies

During my college days I studied Romantic Poetry with William Keach, now of Brown but then at Rutgers. He was an excellent professor, and particularly suited to this course. Not only was it his own area of expertise, but he had large, captivating eyes, very full lips, and Byronic hair. It was a heady combination.

Which may be why my first encounter with the Elgin Marbles was so memorable. I was in a conversation with Prof. Keach at some honors mixer, and he was talking to me about Keats and the Elgin Marbles. I could barely follow him. I had never heard of them, and the idea of Keats playing marbles was just baffling. Thankfully I knew enough to just smile and nod so that I actually stayed in the honors program.

Marbles in my life now are generally annoying clues in the NYTimes crossword, from aggies to alleys to taw, words I often don’t remember when I need to.

In between the two decades I did learn about the marble sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon and found their way to the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London, via Lord Elgin. Once the word metope entered my life, everything was very clear. Except for the issue of national ownership.

Things Change
The Elgin Marbles are back in the news, after two hundred and three years, because of the new Acropolis Museum. It's a world-class institution in the historic area of Makriyianni, just 300 meters from the Acropolis in Athens, designed by Bernad Tschumi Architects, NY/Paris and Michael Photiadis, Athens. It is a stunning building of glass and light, with innovative ways of revealing excavations below the building.

The museum is also a locus for some 21-century brand of irony in the halls of its Parthenon gallery, the gallery from which you can look out and see, well, the actual Parthenon. Yes, that gallery, where there are now REPLICAS of the the metopes that adorned the 4 facades of the ancient temple. They are replicas because the real ones are in London.

One of the arguments for why there was some moral ground for the Brits keeping the plundered marbles was that they were safe, well cared for, and easy to see in London, while for decades Greece struggled to make their national treasures available to the public. Clearly that argument now has no legs. Go see the fabulous Acropolis Museum website.

Global Jockeying

The new Acropolis Museum opened June 21, 2009. The British Government tried to outflank the inevitable flack by offering to LOAN the marbles to the new museum, on the grounds that that Greece then formally recognize the British Museum’s ownership as part of the loan agreement. The Greek government declined.

The Brit claim is that Lord Elgin was given permission from the then-Ottoman ruler to take them. It’s possible, although the Ottoman Empire was itself a conqueror, so their “rights” over Greek property would be shady to start.

With all this swirling around, I went to see the Elgin Marbles when I was in London. The British Museum is a wonderful place, free to the public. Although one could look at it as a huge warehouse of stolen properties.

The Parthenon room is large, and the marbles are well displayed in running lines as they would have been on the building.

Brave New World
Another argument for not returning the marbles is that it would rend a tear in the very fabric of the museum world that could launch a vortex that sucks every foreign piece back to its country of origin. (If this were a film, that scene could be visually stunning.) Others argue that the Parthenon has a unique place in world history, and returning the marbles would not set a precedent.

I was on the fence myself, until I saw the pictures of the Acropolis Museum and the fake plaster replicas. The world is smaller than in the days of Lord Elgin, and it would be so very easy to deliver the pieces back to their home, so that visitors would be able to stand gazing at the temple, and then turn to the actual marbles that are centuries old.

The Poets Have Spoken
It’s a tale worthy of a Greek drama that England’s sense of national identity is so invested in Greek antiquity.

Byron was having none of it. His famous line from Childe Harold:
“Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands . . . ."

Keats on the other hand saw his own mortality in these ancient images of war and ceremony. The marbles went on display in 1817 and he died 4 years later.

On Seeing the Elgin Marbles for the First Time
by John Keats

My spirit is too weak; mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
Yet 'tis a gentle luxury to weep,
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning's eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an indescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old Time -with a billowy main,
A sun, a shadow of a magnitude.

Long Tawl End Game
England has given humanity much of what we consider world culture--ideas that transcend national boundaries. Shakespeare alone would have sealed their top-ten status, but there’s so much more. I love how many addresses from nonwestern countries find this blog searching on Thomas Hardy.

A people of such intelligence and depth should be able to see how different the world is from 1817. Instead, they’re playing Keepsies. Christopher Hitchens wrote a book arguing for the repatriation of the marbles. From a broader perspective, Tony Blair was mocked for his “Cool Britannica,” but an important idea lay beneath the kitsch ad tag: that England should not be entrenched in its own storied past. The scepter’d isle still has much to contribute to the world, and returning the marbles to within sight of the Parthenon with smiles and enthusiasm would be an excellent start to a distinctly 21 century sense of national greatness.

(photos: the top 2 and below, the real Parthenon marbles in London; middle photos show the replicas at the Acropolis Museum.)