Friday, December 31, 2010

The Last Bus Ride of 2010

I had to run down to the Apple store this morning (my MacBook Pro is getting wonky), and on the way back I took the M104 up Broadway.

It’s was a sunny morning here in Gotham, and the bus was a lovely way to go, much better than the dank darkness of the underground. Thinking about this being the last day of the first decade of the new millennium led my thoughts to drift philosophical as the bus slowly made it’s way and a part of the stream of humanity got on and got off.

I’ve run into the idea of “being on the bus” as a metaphor for life in various places. A priest once likened coming to terms with death as simply that you reach your stop, and you get off the bus of life. This was echoed in a Fraiser episode, of all things. In the episode “The Dog That Rocks the Cradle,” Fraiser and Niles want Martin to plan his funeral. He says no, “You don’t pull the chord on the bus until you’re ready to get off.” Hmm. Did the writers hear that same sermon?

The tv series House also used the bus as the transition from here to hereafter. It was in “Wilson’s Heart,” when Amber pieces together how she came to be terminal in the hospital, she says, “I shouldn’t have gotten on the bus.” This is literal, because the bus was in an accident, but it had the overtone of a more philosophical idea of what you can and can’t control in your life as you travel along.

There was something else on the bus that triggered the end-of-year reverie: a woman was eating Good and Plenty. I haven’t even seen a box of G&P in years. And my mind searched for the old commercial song (which must have been played to the early seventies): Charlies says, Love my Good and Plenty; Charlie says, Really rings the bell.”

From childhood Saturday mornings to being on a bus on the great street, Broadway.

I really don’t know where my bus is headed, or where or when that last stop will be. But the journey is never dull, and you can’t ask for more than that.


Monday, December 27, 2010

"The frolic architecture of the snow"

New York has seen two large snow storms this year, the one in February, that had an O. Henry twist for me, and the Boxing Day Blizzard. This one was particularly cruel to travelers, who had been given an extra travel day with Christmas on a Saturday. Now if they get out by New Year's they'll be happy.

As a city dweller with no car (and no need to fly anywhere!), I could enjoy all the drama and beauty of the storm without the inconvenience.

My roof garden--with its beachwood table sets--looks like a Hampton's sand dune!





The side streets with the parked cars get the brunt of the effects. Both because they don't get plowed and they don't get direct sun.



New Yorkers were on the move: I still had to wait at the Apple Store at Broadway and 67 to get a new battery. But it was worth it to see an amazing curtain of ice---a true urban example of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called "the north wind's masonry"--that the storm had left on the side of the glass building.





The Snow Storm
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end.
The sled and traveler stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.


Come see the north wind's masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Doctor Who: Jumping the Christmas Shark?

And so it came to pass in these days, that a decree went out from BBC America that American fans of Doctor Who should not be kept waiting to see the annual Christmas episode until Easter, as they had been in days of old.

This was the first Christmas special with Steven Moffat as executive producer and Matt Smith as the Doctor: it was quite a pop cultural mashup.

The most obvious riff is the permutation on Dickens A Christmas Carol. Moffat added a twist of more far-reaching time travel, as the Doctor tries to change Scrooge/ Kazran by being his Ghost of Christmas Past and giving him a better past so that he will be a better person in the present and help a ship that’s in trouble.

I thought it was delightful, capturing a spirit of “Christmass-ness” in many ways, from the Doctor arriving via chimney, to the giddy joy of "Merry Christmas" that he and Kazran Jr. greet Abigail each Christmas Eve, to the Christmas Eve dinner they share with Abigail's sister’s family.

The mashups came as smaller plot points: the Doctor spending one Christmas Eve at Frank Sinatra’s lodge where he becomes engaged to Marilyn Monroe; the bridge of the spaceship that’s in danger looking a lot like the Enterprise; Abigail (the Welsh singer Katherine Jenkins) singing Holst’s "In the Bleak Midwinter."

But my favorite is that the “monster” of the episode is an enormous shark. When it tries to kill the Doctor and Kazran Jr. it looks like it’s straight out of Jaws---all that’s missing is a quip about needing a bigger boat (Moffat doesn’t seem to know that the line is de rigueur for that trope.)

But more than that, the Doctor tames the shark until it is dolphin-like, and then hooks him to a sleigh for a fanciful flight over faux Victorian London.

Hmm. We know that Moffat chafes at all the Russell Davies particulars that he inherited. In this episode he has the all powerful psychic paper short out-- with the “serious and mature adult credential” being a lie that is just TOO big for it--- and he chips away at the even more powerful sonic screwdriver, as the Doctor asks “what good is the screwdriver” when half is stuck in the shark.

Is it possible that Moffat resents needing to provide a special Christmas episode, which as Ross Ruediger pointed out to me, only started with the reboot? Methinks the flying shark would suggest so. You just don't get to use a shark as a character without the "jumping the" baggage. Moffat, a consummate tv writer, would know that.

Nonetheless, even with the playful jibe, he has added a memorable episode to the Doctor Christmas canon. Casting the great Michael Gambon was an enormous gift itself, as are the songs from Jenkins.



Friday, December 24, 2010

The Hopes and Fears of All the Years . . .

. . . are met in thee tonight, O little town of Bethlehem.

And the Word was made Flesh, bringing salvation. It's the human side that has led to centuries of anxiety and destruction. But not tonight.

Merry Christmas to all in whatever that merriment means to you.

Thoughts on Christmas Eve from the poet John Ciardi, from 1947.


Salvation's angel in a tree
Stared out at Blake, and stares at me
From zodiacs of colored bells,
And colored lights, and lighted shells,
A cherub's face above a sheet:
No arms, no torso, and no feet,
But winged and wired against the Fall,
And a paper halo over all-
A nineteen-hundred-year-old doll
In a drying tree. What does it see?

The house is sleeping; there's only me
In the cellophane snow by the lethal toys
That wait all night for the eager boys:
Metal soldiers, an Indian suit,
Raider's tools, and gunner's loot.
I mash my cigarette, and good night,
Turn off the angel and the light
On a single switch. The children toss
In excited sleep. Alone in the house,
I feel the old, confusing wind
Shake the dark tree and shake my mind,
Hearing tomorrow rattle and bang
Louder than all the angels sang.
By feel, I lower the thermostat
And pick my way through a creaking flat,
The demon children, the angel doll,
Sleep in two darks off one dark hall,
I move through darkness memorized,
Feeling for doors.

One half-surprised
Wish stays lit inside my head.
I leave it on and go to bed.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Very Best Christmas Movie: The Thin Man!

Much of the sparkle and fun of Christmas is for children, even after Santa fades into parents.

But one great bauble for grown-up holiday spirits is the 1934 film The Thin Man. I don’t know why it isn’t on best Christmas movie lists across the land.

The oddly non-eponymous series (the Thin Man was actually the victim Clyde Wynant, not Nick Charles) began with this first of the six films, set during the holidays. Nick and Nora Charles are pulled into solving a mystery, but their real talent is throwing a Christmas Eve party in their hotel room---is there anything more glamorous than the rich staying in a hotel suite over the holidays, complete with a Christmas tree?

Nicky’s old crime buddies hear he is town and stop by. The suavest of hosts, Nick glides around the room with a tray or martinis offering his guests “Ammunition.”




Nick: Do you want a drink?                          
Guest: No, I’m okay
Nick: Oh, that’s a mistake

 As the murder plot thickens, "Jingle Bells" is in the background, the gang sings a blurry “O Christmas Tree,” and Nora, in a chic dress with a candy-cane motif, calls down to the concierge to send up sandwiches for everyone.

After the party a thug comes by with a gun and Nick is grazed by a bullet. Scene up, Christmas morning. The Charles’s have opened their gifts. Nora is sitting in her new mink coat, Nick is recuperating on the couch, playing with his air gun, firing at the balloons on the Christmas tree. Their banter sparkles amid the gift wrappings. It’s a lovely scene.


Surely Nick and Nora Charles should be seen as much a part of the cinematic fabric of Christmas as that Bailey clan.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

A New Gerund Enters My Life

Rolfing. And two new nouns: facia/myofascial system, and structural integration.

The verb is not the sophomoric slang for vomiting. It comes from Ida Rolf, an extraordinary if mysterious woman, born in the Bronx in 1896. She graduated Barnard in 1916, and then from Columbia University of Physicians and Surgeons with a doctorate in biochemistry. Beyond that, details of her life are extremely vague. Somewhere along the line she sustained an injury. One site said it was a horseback riding accident, and that she used her knowledge to find ways to heal herself. Somehow that grew into a practice called structural integration, nicknamed after its founded and then copyrighted.


“Dr. Ida Rolf developed Structural Integration, in the 1950s, a holistic system of soft tissue manipulation and movement education based on yoga with the goal of balancing the body by stretching the skin in oscillatory patterns. She discovered that she could change the body posture and structure by stretching the myofascial system.“


I went to a Structural Integration therapist as on outgrowth of my Pilates work. I’m having trouble with some of the movements, and the root of the trouble was structural: how my pelvis is tilting, how my shoulders sit, things like that that aren't so obvious to the casual observer. My muscles are also very tight, but what I learned is that it’s really the facia that’s tight.

Ida’s system is a 10-part series of manipulations. The Rolfer applies a lot of pressure deep into the facia, the amazing fibrous tissue that connects everything in your body. That intense pressure releases the facia that is tight or even foreshortened from chronic tension; that then allows muscles and bones to return a more optimal alignment.

“They say,” the body adapts, but remembers. I’ve been plagued by extreme emotions my whole life. I’ve had to submerge them in order to be able to simply live day to day without medication. I know that some of that intensity burrowed into my body. Every disappointment, and there have been some whoppers, also knotted some of that connective tissue a little tighter, and then tighter, and then tighter over the years. The Rolfer sees that as overstimulation.

“Put another way, Rolfing allows the brain and nervous system to “re-boot” areas of the body that are receiving too much electrical stimulation (chronically tight or sore muscles). And once a healthy level of muscle contraction is established, someone’s entire structure is free to express a pain-free form.”


I’m up to #4 in the 10-part series, (which will actually be 12 to work on jaw and neck tension.) It’s not a panacea. I’m skeptical that anything I do reset won’t just fall back into old ways. But I’m open to possibilities. And that may be the most important element of this process.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Right Place, Right Time

Our bartender friend Scribbler of Behind the Stick has an amazing story up at his place, recounting his cosmic experience of going to Elaine’s last Friday, following the news of her death. It has to do with a key lost, and a key returned. Go visit to read his strangely magical tale.

His story reminded me of a time when the universe put me in a very specific place, at a very specific time, in order to help someone I didn’t know.

(Time Tunnel music up here.)

October 3, 1995
Does anyone remember that date?

It was the day the jury came back with the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial.

I watched the verdict on TV at work, with literally half the population of the U.S. (according to Wiki).

The media played up that there was “concern” that there might be rioting in the city over the verdict. The details are now fuzzy in my head, but I think I decided it was as good of a reason as any to go out to Long Island to see my mom.

I think I left work a little early, and I walked down to Penn Station. Which meant that to get to my train I was going down the main, big staircase at 7th avenue and 33rd street. It was a little early for rush hour, but hundreds and hundreds of people were already streaming down those steps.

And that’s when it happened.

Going down the stairs I was behind a man in his sixties, grey hair, wearing a red plaid chub jacket and grey pants. Midway down I saw a basic number 10 envelope fall out of his back pocket. I picked it up and taped him on the shoulder.

He turned around and looked at me, then looked down at the envelope.

“Oh my God,” he said. “Thank you for returning that to me. I can’t lose that.”

It’s not what he said, but the way he said it. There was sheer terror and exaggerated relief in his eyes at the same time.

We were stopped for a nanosecond on the steps as the crush of commuters flowed around us. The energy between us was so strange, so odd: as I handed the envelope to him I felt that like I was literally handing his life back to him.

I really can’t imagine what was in the envelope. It wasn’t flat, it felt like it had several pages in it. It crossed my mind that if it was so important, what was it doing in his back pocket?

It was the briefest of encounters, but it has haunted me a bit since then. It may be that the action of getting that envelope back into that man’s hands is the single most significant thing I will ever do on this earth. That’s okay with me.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

I Would Follow Bergdof's Anywhere

My own official kickoff of the Christmas season begins with my visit to the windows at Bergof’s. Midtown is so glutted with tourists that it took me almost 15 minutes to make the 5 blocks journey north on 5th Avenue between my office and BGs.

The arduous trek was well worth it. The theme of the windows this year is one near and dear to my heart: TRAVEL.

They’re called “Wish You Were Here,” and David Hoey’s signature wildly sophisticated vistas are visual meditations on the romance of different modes of travel: train, ship, mythological Pegasus; "day tripper" to the stars; hot air balloon; and Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang-like jalopy; as well as fantastic features of stunning ensembles with globes and maps. The zodiac pops up in various windows as part of the detail of the heavens.

Each window really is a masterpiece of art and design. The ultimate holiday windows for grownups.

What I also like about them is the “making of” video that Bergdof produced uses the song “Follow Me” by 17-year old Audrianna Cole. She’s the aural cousin of Pamplamoose, the other holiday go-to group this year (you know, those Hyundai commercials). Cole’s song is a nice echo of Twitter’s constant entreaty, and thoughts that travelers often have about loved ones who are nontravellers: Why don’t you follow me?

TV Imitating My Life

After my Bergdof’s visit I caught an episode of CSI: New York, which I never watch. But the plot was that Gary Sinises and Sela Ward go see the unveling of a department store’s holiday windows. And they see a pickpocket working the crowd, lifting wallets while people’s attention is focused on the windows.

That exact thing happened to me!! The ONLY time I have had my pocket picked in Gotham was many years ago, while I was looking at the windows of Lord & Taylor. I was working down on Wall Street at the time, but a meeting brought me to 42 street, and so I took the opportunity to see the windows. I felt so stupid. I live here, I’m supposed to know better. So this year I was extra careful and alert, and I left Bergdof’s with wallet and spirits intact.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Where's M.A.?

I was happily one of 15,000 people on Thanksgiving morning in Manchester, CT, participating in a 74-year-old tradition of running 4.7 miles to usher in the holiday season.

The Manchester Road Race started in 1927 when the captain of the Manchester High School cross-country team was sad that his track season was over in early November, and thought it would be fun if there were a Thanksgiving Day cross-country race for the town. The Manchester recreation director got on board and then the town government, and so a tradition was started.

Today it’s competitors and customs. Generations of families run together, and there’s a contingent of imaginative costumes, including: blue bodied smurfs; suit and sunglassed Blues Brothers; an entire Thanksgiving dinner; a running Christmas tree; and several different groups of men in Hawaiian hulu outfits. Townspeople line most of the route, cheering people on, some blaring some inspiring music, which really does help. Various homegrown bands play for the crowd: rock bands play some mean Leonard Skynard and the Stones; there was a brass quintet; an accordion band; and the St. Patrick's bagpipe band from Glastonbury. The whole atmosphere is incredibly festive.

I was happy with my 63 minutes finish time for 4.7 miles. I had to power-walk up the big hill, but since I’ve been power walking in NY a lot longer than I’ve been trying to run, I didn’t fall too far behind in time.


Manchester, Then & Now
I wasn’t familiar with Manchester before my friends invited me along. I learned it was the site of the first successful professional silk mill in the US, founded by Ralph, Ward, and Frank Cheney in 1838. With the success of Cheney silks, Manchester grew into a quintessential company town. The town has preserved the remnants of the dynasty’s homes and mills, and its archives are an important source of knowledge for the mill production work of New England.

The family ran the company until they were bought out by JP Stevens in 1954. The town never recovered its company town prosperity and it has suffered in the recnt economic downturns. It is sprinkled with antique stores, and I guess it sees some business from the NY to Boston “antique-ing” seekers.

The race begins with the "Star Spangled-Banner," and after “on your marks, get set, go” is proclaimed, the race kicks off to a recording of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” followed by Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

Somewhere amid all this ceremony I heard the announcer say something like “let us remember our neighbors,” and he read a fairly long list of names.

And then a chill went down my spine. I remembered. Manchester. There was a shooting in Manchester in August. A worker at a beer distributor was accused of stealing, and was asked by his boss to resign or be fired. After viewing videotape surveillance they had of him stealing from his route, he signed a resignation. He then asked to go get a drink of water, and he picked up 2 guns he had brought with him in his lunch pail. He shot eight people, and then himself. He had complained to his mother and girlfriend of racist treatment from his employers, though he had never filed a complaint with the union.

The announcer was reading the names of the those who were shot dead. Standing amid 15,000 people it was a poignant reminder how much our lives are affected by our neighbors. There are times when we celebrate together, sometimes even in running shoes. But the fabric of individual life and collective society is always very, very fragile.

Update 11/29: Turns out that Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King was at the race too. Here's his account (h/t my brother):

A good time was had by all at the 74th annual Manchester (Conn.) Road Race in central Connecticut Thanksgiving morning. What a slice of Americana. Ran in memory of my late brother Bob with his widow, Caroline; visiting daughters Laura and Mary Beth; nephew Evan and niece Laila, Bob and Caroline's children; along with their teammates from the South Windsor (Conn.) High cross-country team ... all in bright green "Bob's Team'' T-shirts designed by Laila. A great morning, though it was 29 degrees at the start of the race.

This was one of those leisure 4.8-milers, even with a mile-long winding hill early in the race, with 15 bands playing by the side of the Manchester roadways, and some of the most incredible costumes. Eight guys streamed past at one point in little loincloths and native-American feathers around their heads, wearing nothing else but running shoes. As one of the rock bands played "Fortunate Son'' on a lawn 1.5 miles into it, a guy dressed as one of the Hanson brothers from "Slapshot'' danced on the lawn with a woman dressed from head to toe as a bright red lobster. And so it went. Never had more fun running a race, even though I finished around 11,000th out of 15,000. At least I edged out 90-year-old Betty Hutchinson. Now that would have been embarrassing.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Counting My Blessings



Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I'll be running in the 4K Manchester Road Race this year. It's quite the tradition in Connecticut. Here are some wise words from Mr. Irving Berlin:

When I'm worried and I can't sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings
When my bankroll is getting small
I think of when I had none at all
And I fall asleep counting my blessings

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tumblring Back At You

I'd like to call your attention to a tumblr of the finest order: "This isn't happiness™" by the talented Peteski. His tumblr is a dazzling, poignant, sexy, beautiful, dark collection of photographs that has an enormous following. Peteski describes his work as "an art scrapbook of links more than images, Rated PG-13. Most images seen here have been retouched or manipulated by me for propaganda purposes."

From time to time Peteski links to one of my posts, and he did so last week in the most artful way. He had posted this very "descriptive" photo for Veterans Day, and linked to my post for the day, looking at the fictional character Lord Peter Wimsey whose shell shock is worked into the plot of the mystery. I didn't notice the quiet statement about war in the photo at first, which is part of its power.

Then Peteski recaptioned the photo on his site using a quote from the Wimsey book. And that caption was just perfect for that photo: the soldiers are clearly WWI, from Lord Peter's war, and the character is speaking to Wimsey in such understatement: "What's the damn good of it, Wimsey?" Peteski has an excellent ear as well as eye.

Go enjoy his amazing curated vision of the world. Regardless of his own site subhead, you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Honoring Those Who Served . . . and Lived

Veterans Day is our national complement to Memorial Day, when we honor those who went into the jaws of hell and came back. For Great Britain and the Commonwealth, November 11 is their Memorial Day, their time to honor the dead, anchored as it is on Armistice Day, when the war to end all wars ended and the modern world began.

For we Yanks, HBO has a new documentary tonight called Wartorn: 1861 to 2010, executive produced by James Gandolfini. Reviewed by Edward Copeland here.

It’s an important story that looks at our returning veterans today, and since the Civl War, and sees what kind of challenges they bring back with them from the battlefields, from witnessing the very worst that humans can do to humans. One challenge is continuing trauma. From the HBO website:

“Civil War doctors called it hysteria, melancholia, and insanity. During the First World War it was known as shell shock. By World War ll, it became battle fatigue. Today, it is clinically knows as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a crippling anxiety that results from exposure to life-threatening situations such as combat.”

Popular culture has captured some of this truth, including William Wyler’s 1946
The Best Years of Our Lives. When Frederic March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell return home from the “popular war” they each struggle with nightmares and alcohol.

The Shell Shocked Lord Peter
An early mainstream depiction of shell shock was from Dorothy L. Sayers and her creation Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey is seen as a foolish ass in some ways, but we learn that he was severely injured by artillery fire near Caudry, France, and suffered a complete breakdown when he was demobbed. The foolish demeanor is his way of coping with the shell shock.

In Whose Body, the first Wimsey novel, his overwork leads him to hallucinate he is back in the trenches. Luckily his manservant Bunter is nearby:

"Put that light out, damn you!" said Wimsey. "Listen—-over there-—listen—can't you hear it?"

"It's nothing, my lord," said Mr. Bunter, hastily getting out of bed and catching hold of his master; "it's all right, you get to bed quick and I'll fetch you a drop of bromide. Why, you're all shivering—you've been sitting up too late."

"Hush! no, no—it's the water," said Lord Peter with chattering teeth, "it's up to their waists down there, poor devils. But listen! can't you hear it? Tap, tap, tap—they're mining us—but I don't know where—I can't hear—I can't. Listen, you! There it is again—we must find it—we must stop it . . . Listen! Oh, my God! I can't hear—I can't hear anything for the noise of the guns. Can't they stop the guns?"

"Oh, dear!" said Mr. Bunter to himself. "No, no—it's all right, Major—don't you worry."

"But I hear it," protested Peter.

"So do I," said Mr. Bunter stoutly; "very good hearing, too, my lord. That's our own sappers at work in the communication trench. Don't you fret about that, sir."

Lord Peter grasped his wrist with a feverish hand.

"Our own sappers," he said; "sure of that?"

"To be sure they will," said Mr. Bunter, "and very nice, too. You just come and lay down a bit, sir—they've come to take over this section."

"You're sure it's safe to leave it?" said Lord Peter.

In a later novel, The Unpleasantness at the Belladonna Club, begins on Armistice Day, 1928, and the plot revolves around the fact that for the 2 minutes of silence at 11:00 am on November 11, nobody moves, so the killer can get to his target unseen.

It’s also notable for this exchange between Wimsey and Captain Fentiman from the war:

George: "I wish to God Jerry had put me out with the rest of ‘em. What’s the good of coming through for this sort of thing? What’ll you have?”

Wimsey: “Dry Martini” Cheer up. All this Remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don’t it? It’s my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn’t run it for all it’s worth. However, it won’t do to say so. . . .How are things going for you?

George: “Oh rotten as usual. Tummy all wrong and no money. What’s the damn good of it, Wimsey? A man goes and fights for his country, gets his inside gassed out, and loses his job, and all they give him is the privilege of marching past the Cenotaph once a year and paying four shillings in the pound income-tax.”

* * * * *

What’s interesting about this is that Sayers is the early Christie. Her novels are murder mysteries, not Zola-like realistic drama. But her characters ring true in many ways, and such was the reality of the fate of the returning servicemen from World War 1.

It is sad and terrible and seemingly inevitable that a similar fate awaits some of our own service people. One tangible way to help is to contribute to Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust and other such organizations that helps today’s veterans.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cross Currents on the Kindle

I’ve entered the world of digital ink, of whole libraries stored in a tablet the size of an old paperback book, torn down to the thickness of the cover with just a few pages.

My 6" screen Kindle just came today, so I’m still finding my way around. One surprise was the screen savers that appear when it goes to sleep: so far I’ve seen Jane Austen, Ralph Ellison, Virginia Wolf, and Jules Verne in classic line drawings. The most surprising was the medieval illuminated manuscript. A striking echo of the work of scribes, often monks, who spent their lives transcribing books by hand: “Had it not been for the monastic scribes of Late Antiquity, the entire literature of Greece and Rome would have perished in Europe.”

And so we of the electronic ink age stay connected to the history of literature. This advancement in technology is not meant to cut us off from the past.

I first started paying attention to this new device after reading Nicholson Baker’s “Annals of Reading” article in The New Yorker in August 2009. He was a skeptic all around: he didn’t like the name: “It was cute and sinister at the same time-—worse than Edsel, or Probe, or Microsoft’s Bob”; and he reacted to the $395 price: “Sure, the Kindle is expensive, but the expense is a way of buying into the total commitment.”

It’s much, much less of a commitment now, and I like the name. I never seriously considered the Sony Reader or the Nook (talk about a bad name).

Baker was ahead of the curve when he talks about reading books on his tiny iPod (these still being the days before the iPad).

“In print, The Lincoln Lawyer swept me up. At night, I switched over to the e-book version on the iPod ($7.99 from the Kindle Store), so that I could carry on in the dark. I began swiping the tiny iPod pages faster and faster.

"Then, out of a sense of duty, I forced myself to read the book on the physical Kindle 2. It was like going from a Mini Cooper to a white 1982 Impala with blown shocks.”

Ouch.

The Kindle is not illuminated, and the current version 3 doesn’t even have a brightness control for the screen, which is a huge design flaw. It is not a touchscreen, which for a woman whose first cell phone was an iPhone is a little frustrating to navigate.

And yet, I want my library to be separate from the universe that comes with the internet on an iPad. I’m happy that my liquid books have their own space, and in the modern age, they have their own gadget.


My First Kindle Book . . .


A modern rite of passage. What would my first download be?

When I saw it on a list of Top Kindle books, I knew it was the one:

Keith Richard’s Life.

I loved Tom Watson’s post about seeing Richards at the NYPL talking about his book. It sounded like a fascinating read, part cultural history, part dispatches from the drug wars, but it’s not the kind of book I want on my spatially challenged bookshelf. It's a perfect ebook.

I just started reading it, but something jumped out that totally grabbed me.

Keith has short summary blurbs at the start of each chapter:

“In which I am pulled over by the police officers in Arkansas during out 1975 U.S. tour and a standoff ensues”

“In which I go to art college, which is my guitar school”

That style is a loud echo of Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers and its sequel, Twenty Years After:

“In which M. Seguier, keeper of the seals, looks more than once for the bell”

“In which it is proved that in the most trying circumstances brave men never lose their courage, nor hungry ones their appetite”

Which isn’t surprising. Keith is a literate guy with a good ear, and The Three Musketeers is in the DNA of every generation of young boys. We have to give Mick D’Artagnan, but Keef is our Athos, from the hard drinking to the skill with the sword, I mean guitar.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Rutgers v. Army at the New Meadowlands

I don’t go to many of my alma mater football games. In fact the last one was decades ago, when I went to the final Rutgers/Princeton game. Rutgers won that, 44 to 13. Rutgers was just starting to make its bid for big time football, and so needed to be in a different league than Princeton. It was surely an end of an era, since those two institutions began “college football” when on November 6, 1869, guys from Rutgers College challenged guys from College of New Jersey (now Princeton) to play football. Rutgers won, 6 to 4.

I have a sentimental place in my heart for Army, since my father used to take me to West Point to see Army play, usually against Notre Dame, and then we had to root for ND, of course.

The “new” Meadowlands looks a lot like the old one, a.k.a Giants Stadium. I saw a few games there in the LT years.

It was perfect football weather: cool but not cold with sunny skies. And it felt good to participate in this time-honored autumnal American ritual. Rutgers won in overtime, 23 to 20, but they really didn’t deserve to. Army was clearly the better team, but Rutgers scraped by and got lucky in many plays, except in one terrible play where Defensive Tackle Eric LeGrand sustained a neck injury in overtime. He's in the hospital, and his condition hasn't yet been reported, which doesn't sound good.

Update: The NYTimes is reporting that LeGrand is paralyzed from the neck down. How shocking. There were other injuries during the game, other players who didn't get up right away, so there was no way to know how serious Eric's injury is. Do there seem to be more injuries than in the past? As a kid watching games for years with my Dad, I don't remember any critical injuries. Everyone is praying for Eric.


I bought these tickets back in August, to go with an old RU alumni friend and her husband. It’s an odd twist of timing that the first game we go to for decades is just after the tragedy of Tyler Clementi put RU on the front page for troubling reasons.

Looking around at the RU fans, it’s hard to imagine any of them would have been so cruel to Tyler, even given that his sensibility was so different from their own.

And Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei: we’ve heard nothing more about charges against them. Why is that? Are their parents paying out to protect their privacy? Won’t that just suck.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Another Really Important Birthday: Happy 10 Years Andrew Sullivan & The Dish


On the heels of John Lennon's big day comes this very important day in the blogosphere: The Dish is turning 10!! (Making it a Libra blog, uniting John, Andrew, and me :) For all of you who think blogging is a more recent phenomenon than that, take note!

(I love his party hat and cake for the dogs. The man knows how to celebrate.)

Andrew is the blogger’s blogger. I read him several times every day for the sheer scope of ideas, for his clear, interesting, provocative, comforting voice, for the postings from his readers. He is a true pioneer of the form, as he says, “in 2000, there was Mickey and me, basically, in the political blogosphere”—-he taught us all by doing. He is so much richer than just a “political” blogger.

His blog (along with James Wolcott and Matt Zoller Seitz’s House Next Door) is the reason I started blogging: I wanted to join this amazing, self-empowered conversation myself, first hand.

And it was a thrill when Andrew did that literally by linking to my St. David’s day post last year, simply because I had emailed him and asked if he would be writing one for the day. That connection is the essence of blogging. We gave a collective nod to the Welsh on their national day—Dydd Gwly Dewi Dedwydd--because we both find that sort of tradition important.

Andrew’s description of the blogger’s joy is a perfect encaspulation:

“The original appeal, of course: the dream every writer has ever had since history began. To be able to write directly to other human beings, with no editor or publisher, no censor or commercial pressure, to open the mind to other open minds, to speak with as little fear as possible and to see what happens. I saw that potential in this new miraculous medium the first instant this blog was born; I see it now more clearly than ever.”

The “Toast or Roast” posts from his peers in honor of the day is wonderful reading.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Dun-na-nuh-neh-na-nah, neh nuh: THEY SAY IT'S YOUR BIRTHDAY

IT'S MY BIRTHDAY TOO, YEAH;
THEY SAY IT'S YOUR BIRTHDAY,
WE'RE GONNA HAVE A GOOD TIME;
I'M GLAD IT'S YOUR BIRTHDAY,
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU.



I’m SO happy to see the Google animation for John. What a great way to take his 20th century doodles into the 21st century.

The Paley Center for Media’s Tribute to John Lennon (in 2010), who would have turned seventy years old today, brought me into his early world and mind. I’ve had the genuine thrill of producing a gallery exhibit of early images from John’s life, “This Boy . . . John Lennon in Liverpool.” Working with Beatles historian Martin Lewis and curator Ron Simon, we brought together images of the child John—-from Yoko Ono’s archive; the teenage John—-from Rod Davis, one of his Quarrymen bandmates; and one image of John the man——from Bob Gruen’s classic, classic 1980 shoots, among other images.



The show really captures the beginnings of this great artist’s family/school life-—one of my favorite images is John with the neighbor’s dog, Squeaker. Then there is the most important date in rock ‘n’ roll history, July 6, 1957, when John is playing with the Quarrymen at the town fete and Paul is standing in the audience (the visitor’s own POV). The next image is the first time Paul played with the band, and the image after that is George, Paul, and John captured at a friend’s wedding.



Then there is a glimpse of the lads at an audition for Billy Fury. John is doing Elvis, and he’s asking for Billy Fury for his autograph!

Along with the exhibit, the Paley Center screened the Sam Taylor-Wood’s biopic of the same era, Nowhere Boy, with the Quarrymen, who played some of the old tunes after. And closed the week with American Masters LENNONYC, a superb documentary of John’s last ten years. It will be on tv in late November and I strongly recommend it. It’s a incredible time capsule of the 1970s with amazing footage of John you’ve never seen.

The Real Thing
There has been a veritable forest worth of trees and an ocean of ink and a googol of pixels dedicated to thoughts/scholarship about the Beatles, John, John and Yoko.

What has struck me in this special week is the wit and intelligence and struggle of a man trying to balance his extraordinary talent with the entire range of human situations and emotions: longing, jealousy, growing up in the spotlight, rage against the establishment, desires of every kind, loss, bliss, generosity, early middle age.

John’s relationship with Paul fascinates because of its depth and what it gave to the world: an insane number of musically exceptional songs that resonate deeply in the hearts of generations. John’s love for Yoko had such extreme consequences, from furthering tensions within the Beatles to fatefully bringing him to live in New York.

I’m not a big fan of John’s solo career, nor the underlying nihilism of “Imagine,” but I am a huge fan of his spirit of looking for peace: in the world, in his group, in his family, in his own heart.

John, I really hope you were wrong about the "no heaven" thing, and that the seraphim and cherubim are rockin’ with you to celebrate your birthday along with all of us down here.

"In My Life" from Anthology.  The perfect Lennon/McCartney song perfectly set to images:





(Exhibit photos, Reuters. Quarrymen, Michael Priest)

Friday, October 1, 2010

Dark Days on the Banks of the Old Raritan

Sol iustitiae et occidentem illustra
Sun of righteousness, shine upon the West also.

Irony now swirls around the Rutgers sunburst seal, with its adaptation of the Latin motto of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, connoting the original college’s early affiliation with the Dutch Reformed Church.

Rutgers is my alma mater, specifically Rutgers College, New Brunswick, College Avenue Campus. Rutgers used to be known for these people: Paul Robeson, Joyce Kilmer, Milton Friedman, George Segal, and more recently, James Gandolfini, Kristin Davis, Calista Flockhart, Mario Batali, and Pulitzer Prize novelist Junot Diaz.

Now it is known as the college where Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei toyed with the life of Tyler Clementi for their own twisted amusement, after which he jumped from the George Washington Bridge.

People have been cruel and stupidly cruel to one another forever. But the hurt that can be inflicted with the speed of a tweet or the upload of a video is of course our own age’s contribution to man’s inhumanity to man, which, by the way, is a line from Robert Burns’s 1787 poem “Man Was Made to Mourn: A Dirge,” written 21 years AFTER Rutgers was chartered as Queens College in 1766. Rutgers is one of the oldest universities in the country.

“My father sent me to old Rutgers, And resolv'd that I should be a man”

Rutgers College only went coed in 1972, so the words from its school song from 1869 can be forgiven.

Shortly after I graduated, Rutgers went from distinct, independent colleges—-Rutgers College, Douglass College (which Robin Morgan of Sisterhood Is Powerful fame once called “the cradle of feminism”) and Cook College (where the Rutgers tomato was cultivated)-—to a federated university system. For instance, it went from each college having its own English department/faculty, to one University-wide English department. This was part of a bid to be the Michigan of the East, with a football team to match it. I know this because I was asked to speak at a trustee dinner about the academics at Rutgers when this plan was talked about.

And I didn’t really get to say what I wanted. The academics at Rutgers were excellent, but in the 1980s it had an air of anti-intellectualism. The frats were in their heyday, and they weren’t as charming or clever as Animal House. Only two full classes had graduated since women had been admitted, and the status quo was still adjusting.

It was less of an adjustment for the “artistic” dorm I was in called Demarest, which had Special Interest sections. We were all feverishly worldly in the Petri dish of hormones and cerebral gymnastics that is dorm life. Everyone at Demarest was a little off center from the mainstream, in various ways, and so being different was embraced.

Demarest remains the Special Interest housing, and I am certain that Tyler Clementi would be alive today if he had been placed there instead of his dorm on Busch campus, more of a bastion of regular old Jersey boys. It’s a sad, chilling, tormenting thought about how something like a housing lottery can have such an effect on our lives.

A Course in Civility
What the hell is going on at Rutgers in general? Since when do you try to teach civility at a university level?

Completely separate from this tragedy, Rutgers had initiated what it calls “Project Civility, a two-year, university-wide dialogue at Rutgers, sponsored by the Offices of Student Affairs and Undergraduate Education at Rutgers- New Brunswick.”

It so happens that the kick-off event was Sept. 29, “Choosing Civiltiy,” with another “Can We Be Kinder Towards One Another on the Rutgers Buses?”

Rutgers runs free buses between the campus of College Ave., Cook, Douglass, and Busch. What the hell is going on on these buses that such intervention is necessary?

As I said, in my day the frats went too far in hurling verbal abuse at women walking to class on College Ave., but they were reigned in. (I see Phi Gamma Delta [FIJI!] lost its charter. It was a great place for dance parties, but that was before ruffies.)

Clearly, there is some sort of atmosphere at Rutgers that is souring the experience of the young people going there for their college experience. The university still has 70 Greek charters, but there's no evidence that the frat system is at the root of today's malaise.

As for Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. For whatever reason they thought it was acceptable to maliciously tape anyone in an intimate moment and post it on the internet, well, they were fatally wrong.