Friday, December 28, 2012

Anil Dash Take Heart: Jon Swift's Smaller Blog Roundup Continues

Back on December 13, someone I follow retweeted this from Anil Dash:

"I am very appreciative of the very kind responses to my piece about The Web We Lost. But if you liked it, BLOG ABOUT IT. Don't just tweet."

I was intrigued. Someone entreating blogging over tweeting. 

I clicked back to find his article, on his blog, lamenting what we've lost in the blogosphere as the web has evolved. 

Here's one of Anil's points, about linking:

"Ten years ago, you could allow people to post links on your site, or to show a list of links which were driving inbound traffic to your site. Because Google hadn't yet broadly introduced AdWords and AdSense, links weren't about generating revenue, they were just a tool for expression or editorializing. The web was an interesting and different place before links got monetized, but by 2007 it was clear that Google had changed the web forever, and for the worse, by corrupting links."

And who is Anil Dash? His site says "I'm an avid and unabashed student of pop culture, extremely versed in the minutia of funk music and hip hop history, and obsessive about the details of how the modern technology industry came to be." He's turned his passions into a tech/strategist career, and a blogger since 1999. More about him here.

The comments on his "The Web We Lost" are equally interesting reading:

Ryan Sholin ·  Top Commenter
Of all these things, I miss Technorati the most, but I also miss the culture of blogging that powered it. 

Now we (well, Anil and Jason and Gruber and obviously many prominent others excluded) barely use our blogs, content to share half-passively, doing things like posting a comment and leaving the box checked to post it to Facebook as a method of exposing our thoughts on a link to a wider audience. 

Is that enough? Have I sufficiently participated in the conversation? Should I tweet this, too? Maybe I will.

As a blogger since 2006 I am witness to what Anil is talking about. The blog culture in general has changed. It's not as vibrant as it was "in the beginning," with voices subsumed into the impersonal, megalopolis world of the HuffPos and the enticements everywhere to be pithy, and only pithy.

But not entirely.

Vagabond Scholar Continues Jon Swift Tradition

Back starting in 2005 there was a blog/blogger named Jon Swift: "I am a reasonable conservative who likes to write about politics and culture. Since the media is biased I get all my news from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Jay Leno monologues."

He had quite a following of people who "got" that he was a faux conservative and it was satire (Swift, hint, hint)  or didn't and followed him straight.

Everything about "Jon Swift" is the antithesis of Anil's observation. Everything about Swift is highly unique, highly individual.

Swift was in reality the freelance writer Al Weisel, but he took the literary tradition of a nom de plume very seriously, going so far to fight Facebook for his right to have an account with that name.

He participated in a the collective of bloggers that Tom Watson brought together under the umbrella Newcritics.

Swift's blog had a large following and "famous" friends. He started an end-of-year roundup where he asked smaller bloggers of his acquaintance and circles to chose a post of theirs from the year and he would link to it in a roundup. Very nice thing for a blogger to do. Great way to learn about new ideas.

All of Swift's creative engery was stopped by an aortic aneurysm that erupted as he was driving down to his father's funeral in Virginia in 2010. A tragedy on every level for this 46 year old man. His death saddened a good chunk of the blogoshpere, because everything about his work was smart, funny, and perceptive, but above all, unique and individual, on its own platform.

To honor Jon Swift, blogger Vagabond Scholar picked up the tradition of the blog roundup, which I'm granfathered into. (My contribution is about Paul Fussell.) It's another year of great links, many of them from the political side of the blogosphere, which is interesting to me because that's not my usual beat to read.

And so, Anil Dash, here's a bit of the web we knew in 2006, alive and well.

The Jon Swift Memorial Roundup

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas, to the Charlie Brown in Us All

A "Charlie Brown Christmas tree." A poignant concept that has entered the language. Things we try to do, things we make that don't work out all well by arbitrary, limited human standards. But it's the trying, with a sincere heart full of love, that's important. It's something which hopefully even the Lucys in our lives will eventually appreciate. And that leads to transformation, of trees, of many, many things.

Charles Schulz and team picked the perfect hymn to end A Charlie Brown Christmas. "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," says it all, very clearly and succinctly. And starting with the children humming the tune first is so very musical, so very beautiful.

This scene popped into my head thinking about the Newtown children. I keep their memory in my heart through all the services I'm singing, and pray for their families.

Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.

Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies,
With the angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem!

Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King!

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.

Mild, he lays his glory by;
Born, that man no more may die,
Bom to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Snoopy and the WW1 Christmas Truce

Six crazy guys from Ocala, Florida, wrote a great Christmas song for everyone's favorite World War I Flying Ace and his Christmas Eve battle with his archenemy, Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron. It recognizes the actual Christmas Truce of 1914. Pop song with a little history.  I love that.

The Baron had Snoopy dead in his sights
He reached for the trigger to pull it up tight
Why he didn't shoot, well, we'll never know
Or was it the bells from the village below.

Christmas bells those Christmas bells
Ringing through the land
Bringing peace to all the world
And good will to man

The Baron made Snoopy fly to the Rhine
And forced him to land behind the enemy lines
Snoopy was certain that this was the end
When the Baron cried out, "Merry Christmas, my friend!"

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Looking at Fictional TV Shootings After Newtown

First graders. I often see classes of city kids on the #1 train going on a class trip amid the crush of morning commuters. When it's the first graders, you can't help but smile as they hold hands with each other, gently pushed by the teachers & parents into the middle of the car to hang onto the lower third of the silver poles. Their tiny height and bright faces are greatly accentuated by the towering, mostly dulled figures of the grownups going to work, and the high pitches of their new voices push through the heaviness and anxiety in the car with the eternal squeal of "Whoaaa" as the train jumps out of the station and the 6 year olds are thrown off balance with smiles and eyes wide.

Like 9/11, everyone not directly affected by the evil in Newtown is still drawn into all the larger issues of gun control and help and treatment for mental illness.

One part of my own reaction is a renewed consciousness that fictional gun killings permeate our TV storytelling to a shocking degree.

TV: Why Are Your Stories Shooting Us So. Many. Times?

Any reader here knows how much I'm interested in narrative, in storytelling, particularly in the art of TV.  I think the creativity and sophistication of fictional TV is enormous.

It has crossed my mind before how much of our mainstream TV storytelling is about killing someone with a gun. It's quite a spectrum: the Westerns of the 1950s & 60s; the singular murders in the otherwise cushy & peaceful worlds of Columbo and Murder, She Wrote; the ripped from the headlines shootings—singular, serial, and mass—of the Law & Order franchise; the exotic shootings of the CSI franchise; the cartoonish shootings of Castle and Bones; the gun deaths in the drug & vice lifestyle of The Wire, Breaking BadThe Sopranos; and many, many more examples.

As a lifelong TV fan, I know that I have become desensitized by this diet of fictional shootings.

But what really struck me was two episodes of The Mentalist that I saw just after Newtown. It was on in the background, and I wasn't following the story closely, but in one, the CBI gang is watching a home surveillance tape of a woman in her nightgown being shot in the stomach by someone off camera; and another about a group of clowns in a park and one is followed to an alley where he is shot at close range, and the blood goes into slow motion.

What the hell? The Mentalist has a horrific psycho killing at its root (yes, that's a ridiculous statement itself), but the show is usually psychological fluff with "Patrick Jane" doing a higher end "Shawn Spencer." (I have no idea why this show is a hit.)

So now I'm more focused. WHY are we telling so many stories of people being shot to death? What does this say about us as a nation? Do sponsors know that this kind of violence and death in our stories is what the audience wants, or have they just gotten lazy.

We Have to Remember: This Is Fiction. 

Storytelling is something that creative people have control over!

What if the TV writers just decided, 'hey, we are not going to write every plot with a gun ending a life.  And, if we occasionally tell that story, we aren't going to show it graphically.'

The AP said that Fox pulled new episodes of Family Guy and American Dad that were to air on Sunday the 16th "to avoid potentially sensitive content," a sign that there is some thinking going on in Hollywood. It's still a question, why do the episodes have plots about children and killing in the first place.

Since Cain murdered Abel, stories of killing have been part of the human condition, which the Greeks first raised to an art form. But we may be the first people in time to be able to see an escalation of gun killing while we continue an all-too steady diet of fictional killings. So let's be creative and stop feeding that diet. I'm not even arguing direct cause and effect. I don't know what societal changes are needed to stop the latest rise in gun murders in Chicago and Philadelphia,  and the various shootings at malls beyond the headlined Fort Hood, Tuscon, Aurora, Newton. But let's start by getting our fictional stories under control, because we can.

TV, in its dailyness in our homes, makes shooting someone far too ordinary, and small.

But we know that it shouldn't be either.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Light Within a Shimmering Aural Cloud

I was recently reminded of this piece by Morten Lauridsen, "O Nata Lux." It's part of his Lux Aeterna suite, and includes the main motif. I sang it once, and it was transcendent to be an inner voice within these stunning chords.

"O Nata Lux" is the office hymn for the Litugy of the Hours for Lauds (morning prayer) for the Feast of the Transfiguration.  It is very, very old.

O nata lux de lumine,
Jesu redemptor saeculi,
Dignare clemens supplicum
Laudes precesque sumere.

Qui carne quondam contegi
Dignatus es pro perditis,
Nos membra confer effici
Tui beati corporis.

O Light born of Light,
Jesus, redeemer of the world,
with loving-kindness deign to receive
suppliant praise and prayer.

Thou who once deigned to be clothed in flesh
for the sake of the lost,
grant us to be members
of thy blessed body.

Listening to it can lift you up, and float you away, whatever your own beliefs are . . .

Monday, November 26, 2012

"I'll hum it for you: Da-die da-die da dum"

Casablanca turns 70 this year, and TCM celebrated by bringing it back into commercial theaters across the country for one night in March that sold out so quickly that they brought it back for one more night in April, which I got tickets to. I am a life-long fan who never saw it on the big screen. I first saw it on a very small black & white TV set, whose small scale heightened the power of its intimacy. But it was created for the larger-than-life scale of old Hollywood, and I was thrilled to be able to experience it in its original vision.

The universe seemed to be happy about it too: I live on Humphrey Bogart Place, designated by a plaque and street sign by the city in 2006 with Lauren Bacall in attendance because he was born on my street and lived there until he was 23; and two days before the film I had a blog visitor from, well, Casablanca, Morocco.

A 2012 Audience for a 1942 Film
The theater in Manhattan was the behemoth AMC complex on 42 Street, and the particular theater itself was large and sold out. I was sitting toward the back of the stadium seating, when shortly before the TCM/Robert "making of" started, a group of 7 friends filed in next to me and in the row behind. They were college kids or just-grads, 5 guys & two girls. They were loud and boisterous, mocking lines: "I bet there's going to be something about Paris" yadda yadda yadda. I wondered, what are they doing here? Why would they bother? I guess it could be just be a big goof for them, to come and mock and talk back to the screen. Unfortunately, there was no place for me to move.

And then the TCM short started. It was talking heads about the making of, along with a lot of clips. And so we all saw Bogart for the first time. The a**holes were still fidgeting, hushed talking and giggling to each other.

Then the film started, and slowly, little by little, the gang settled down. My impression was that whatever they thought this film was--a bunch of old people and a lot of cliches---was shattered by its spell. Bogart is so cool, in every age, that he cannot be mocked, even by 21st century teenage knuckleheads. These boys think they know how to drink? It's lightweight Candyland compared to a worldly sentimentalist scotch drinker with a broken heart. They have never seen a movie couple as deeply sexy as Bogart and Bergman kissing.

Beyond the knuckleheads, I was surprised by the enormous age range of the audience. There was a 16 year old girl next to me, plugged into her ipod until the opening credits rolled, who wept during the Marseilles and at the end, who clapped at the "New York" line, and I got the impression this wasn't the first time she was seeing it. I'd say middle agers were less than 1/4 of the audience, and it was more racially balanced than many first run movies. The film has been retransferred for its birthday: the blacks and whites are piercing and there's no hint of graininess that would signal an "old" movie, which also helped today's audience connect with it.

Civil War, Jesus, Titanic. . . . and Casablanca
So much has been written about this film, it's daunting to say anything. But when you are convinced that it is the finest movie ever created, you feel compelled to try to explain why that is so, so that the unenlightened, who don't get it—poor sots that they are—have a chance to understand.

Part of its power and charm comes from it being completely un-selfconscious. Citizen Kane, to which it is often compared, is brilliant, but Orson Welles was trying to create great art, and that desire pushes against the seams of the film, like in the exaggerated camera angles. Casablanca began as run-of-the-mill Warner Bros. factory output, with not an ounce of strain toward something "artful." And of course, irony of ironies, it poignantly, intimately brings the viewer into the biggest themes possible—Man, Woman, Love, War, Peace, Sacrifice—in extremely artful ways.

Umberto Eco, the great Italian semiotician, brought his own over-desconstructed treatise to bear on the film. But he seems to have had a similar thought: "Made haphazardly, it probably made itself, if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control. And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making. For in it there unfolds with almost telluric force the power of Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it."

Much is made about this being Bogart's first romantic lead, but I thought he was pretty sexy as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, which came out the year before. Still, Rick Blaine is a more compelling man than Spade: he wears a white dinner jacket with elegant ease and authority; he exerts control over everything in his saloon; and he has loved too well and lost. The club is glamorous, with an air of unpretentious sophistication that all emanates from Rick.

The plot has a beautiful economy to it and the forward motion never flags. But you do have to pay attention. It's not like it's The Big Sleep, but Ilsa's story has twists. Ingrid Bergman claimed she didn't know who she was supposed to be in love with, but there's really no question that it's Rick. Victor Laszlo was hero worship, as her character says.

Bosley Crowther, who reviewed it in 1942 for the NY Times, had trouble following the story:

"But Rick loves the girl very dearly, she is now married to this other man—and whenever his Negro pianist sits there in the dark and sings "As Time Goes By" that old, irresistible feeling consumes him in a choking, maddening wave."

I guess he didn't hear Ilsa outside of the Blue Parrot tell Rick, "Victor Laszlo's my husband, and was, even when I knew you in Paris."

But then Crowther isn't the brightest of reviewers.

That leaves us with a list of what are now cliches: the onscreen chemistry between Bogart and Bergman, Claude Rains's conflicted Frenchman, Dooley Wilson's wise and cool musician, Sydney Greenstreet's black market magnate, Peter Lorre's desperate player: all part of the "happy accidents," as Eco called them, that produced a perfect film.

And then there are The Words
It's almost hard to remember that none of the dialogue of Casablanca was a cliche BEFORE the film. But so many of the lines are perfect—either in their specific context, or not—that they are part of that small club, started by the Bible and greatly amped by Shakespeare, of phrases and sentences that enter our language.

Of course delivery of a line is equally important. But I saw a Bogart/Ann Sheridan movie on TCM the next day, It All Came True, that was just awful: Bogart as a gangster hiding in a musical boarding house. He delivered many of the lines in a way similar to "Rick," but the context was so ludicrous and the specific lines so stupid, that his delivery couldn't save them.

And so we thank the brothers Epstein for this glorious list:

Rick: "There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade."

Rick: “Here's looking at you, kid."

Rick: "I wouldn't bring up Paris if I were you, it's poor salesmanship."

Rick: "The Germans wore grey, you wore blue"

Rick: If it's December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?

Rick: Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

Rick: Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You're part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life. We'll always have Paris. We didn't have it before...we'd...we'd lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.

Rick: “Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.

Renault: You mustn't underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they "blundered" into Berlin in 1918

Renault: Round up the usual suspects.

Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.

Renault: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.

Ilsa: Play it once, Sam, for old times' sake.

Rick: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Skyfall: Giving Thanks for Bond, from Thy Bounty and IMAX

"Jesus said, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky" Luke 10:18

Since it's nearly Thanksgiving, I frame my experience of this new Bond as I was very grateful to see Skyfall yesterday in an IMAX theater.  The cinematography at that scale is truly breathtaking, delivering a glorious visual transcendence for the viewer.

I didn't read any reviews beforehand, but you bring your own relationship to the character and the films with you as you climb the steep IMAX stairs.  For me, it's Connery. Full stop. Moore and Dalton not at all; Lazenby because of Tracy; Bronsan, catching each film years later on TV.

And then Craig, who got me to enter an actual movie theater. I loved Casino Royale and liked Quantum more than many.

Quick Side Thought: What Timeline Are We On?
Can someone point me to an understanding of the Bond character timeline? I believe that Casino and QOS are the character before we meet him in Dr. No. That's why he's not the bantering, ironic 007 we know. He hasn't become that person yet, we are learning about his earlier years. I think that Skyfall is also pre-Dr. No., emphasized by the introduction of Eve, but confused by bringing out the "old" Aston Martin. Any thoughts?

Hail, Britannia & Hooray for Hollywood
For me one of the joys of watching Skyfall was its unabashed celebration of British culture, and the sheer artistry of big-budget Hollywood. These are both deeply flawed institutions, but as I looked around the packed theater, I was impressed, not for the first time, by the power of storytelling——a phrase that has become trite in overuse, but which makes it none the less true. (One missed opportunity for the complete British cultural orgy: they should have shown a little of Bond's funeral so that we could have had a bit of the great choir of St. Paul's, offering the highest art of choral singing that there is.)

Watching the stunning opening credit sequence was like experiencing a video art installation, but instead of there being a handful of people in an art gallery, we were hundreds strong. We were a legion of average looking people, enjoying those exquisite bodies, clothes, and locales, seeing our own daydreams writ large, with a great soundtrack on a great sound system. This was truly the first time as a moviegoer I felt a real sense of escape from personal and world problems that I cannot control. Thanks, James.

Herein I Learned the Word "Recusant"


No one goes to a Bond film for the plot, but there was buzz that this film had more to offer in that vein than the rest of the franchise. Whether it does nor is wildly divergent, from yes, to no, to boring.

I did find the forward motion more coherent than the predecessors. WHY DID BOND DROP THAT NECKLACE IN THE SNOW? WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Sorry, quantum of frustration holdover.

What I found the most intriguing in Skyfall were the religion undertones, something not lost on the Catholic blogosphere.

M is asked to think about her sins; Silva asks Bond what his hobby is: "Resurrection"; Bond twice has a baptismal rebirth by water; the above quote from Luke may be pushing it a bit, but Skyfall is an unusual phrase. The stag statue at the entrance to Skyfall is symbolic from Medieval times/tapestries:

"The stag is a symbol for Christ, who tramples and destroys the devil. As the stags crossing a river help each other, so should the Christian crossing from the worldly life to the spiritual life help others who grow weak or tired. As the stag is renewed and sheds its horns after drinking from the spring, so those who drink from the spring of the spirit are renewed and shed their sins."

Hmm. And then there's the priest hole & the chapel at Bond's ancestral home, evoking the history of Recusancy. Lots of info over at Wiki, but basically after the Reformation, Recusants refused to attend Anglican services, and could face penalties and prison if found out. The harshest penalties were for Catholic priests, and so landed Recusant families build priest holes to hide them, which often had underground passages for the priest to escape the home unnoticed after saying Mass for them.

So our dear Bond is from an old Scottish Recusant family, and we see from the shot of her tombstone that his mother was French—Monique nee Delacroix Bond—likely French Catholic. Now, this is a very specific, somewhat odd creative choice from the writing team of Purvis, Wade, & Logan, wouldn't you say. They could have gotten M & Kincaid out of that house in many other ways that would not have raised the idea of his religious background.

The scene in the chapel gives us a reverse Pieta of the son cradling the dying mother in his arms. Again, a very specific creative choice. Or we have wondered unknowingly into a Graham Greene novel.

(This blog has a lot of interesting information of the real-life models for the Bond manor house with the priest hole.)

Suspension of Disbelief
The film has a lot of unnecessary holes. Someone pointed out that Kincaid says "all we have is your father's rifle" when it's clearly a shotgun. My favorite is there is no way a criminal of Silva's stature would not be in chains, and under video surveillance.

But that's the poetry of it all: willing suspension of disbelief.

I don't know what the series's new-found spiritual side may mean for the future. The sense that life is cheap and disposable in the spy game is still at odds with the tenets of any organized religion.

But it adds an interesting dimension to this cultural touchstone, something I am culturally thankful for.

Happy T-Day everyone! Definitely go see Skyfall!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Armistice Day in New York City

Ninety-four years ago today at 11:00 a.m., in a railroad car in the forest of Compiegne, France and Germany signed the armistice ending World War 1. That was to be the war to end all wars. Sadly, not.

The Commonwealth celebrates Remembrance Sunday today, which will find me at that little faux acre of Anglia that is St. Thomas’s Church on 5th Avenue for evensong for the occasion.

Of course Armistice Day for us is Veterans Day. This commemoration hasn’t had much character in my lifetime. On the “secular” side there are no barbecues, and lots of Veterans Day sales. In recent years it has become a more "active" holiday, to really focus attention on the living veterans and their families, as opposed to Memorial Day which focuses on the dead. Some of that attention has been fueled by social media and and the internet, from the amazing Wounded Warrior Project to American Widow Project.

There is a parade in NY, and the VFW chapters throughout the country do hold ceremonies at town memorials. [And as our attention is Civil War focused by the film Lincoln, it's a reminder that VFW or Veteran of Foreign Wars was a distinction that had to be made at the time and never left. For now at least,  all the homeland wars are still cultural.]

Today's Veterans Day parades and commemorations are greatly impacted by Sandy. Reuters headline: "New York Readies for Veterans Day as region struggles."

But there is little sustained, daily physical presence of WW1,  unlike Britain and Europe, where every town and university has a public monument with the names inscribed of the townsmen and boys who died. There is a shared formality to the British sense of remembrance of those who serve that has no counterpart in America. Even after WWII, when nearly every American family was affected by death on the battlefield, communities did not respond to that grief with marble and stone statuary.

The tradition of “two minutes of silence” at 11:00 a.m. precisely is also distinctly British. It’s too hard to get Americans to stand still en masse for anything. But it’s so ingrained in the British soul that Dorothy L. Sayers used it as a plot device in the Lord Peter Whimsey novel, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. The murderer relies on the fact that no one is going to move for 2 minutes on Nov. 11.

World War I in New York City

The city of New York is not completely without public tributes to those who fought in the Great War.

Laura Canon has catalogued and photographed a good deal of them, from the very first WWI memorial in the U.S—the clock in the tower of Pier A in Battery Park, dedicated in 1919—to the Doughboy statues in Park Slope and in Chelsea (9th Ave. and 28th street) to the official Brooklyn memorial in Prospect Park of a solider and an angle. I see one every day on the way to work—an enormous piece with seven, larger-than-life figures on 5th Avenue and 67 street, a block away from the 7th Regiment’s armory. There is so much motion in the statue that it looks like the men are charging out of Park, ready to defeat anyone in their way.

There is a stained-glass memorial in the NY Athletic club; a carving/relief in St. Thomas, which commemorates the US entering the war and lists the name of the dead of the parish; Father Duffy in Times Square; and a stylized memorial to soldiers of the 77th Division—known as the "Lost Battalion"— killed on October 3, 1918, Argonne Forest, France, by Pablo Tauler in the Woodhaven Boulevard/Queens subway station as part of the MTA Subway Arts project.

This past year New York has had a little more remembrance of World War I with War Horse at Vivian Beaumont, if you overlook the fact that that story of the war has no Americans. I wrote about that here in The Great War & Modern Memory: The Sublime Gash of War Horse.

Still, it is our generation’s responsibility to those who came before not to squander the life and liberty they bought for us with their blood. And to remember.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

(The Childe Hassam painting Allies Day, May 1917, captured a parade on 5th Avenue to celebrate the US entering the war in 1917.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day 2012

Good luck and best wishes to all our neighbors who in the midst of the suffering of the loss of homes and lives, and the continued struggle with no power, heat, or running water, make the effort to stand on lines for the shuttle buses to where they can vote, stand on line to vote, and get back on the shuttle bus to go home. No one said democracy was easy, but many bear the burden to a much greater extent than others.

Some levity from a simpler time, when Josh Lyman voted for Bartlet's second term.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Drowned Dreams

The Tristate area joins New Orleans and Florida in the deep knowledge of how nature can tear apart everything that man can build. 

Brooklyn Recovery Fund
Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York
Salvation Army
United Way Sandy Recovery Fund

"Brooklyn Bridge Park is now home to an historic and beautifully restored carousel, a gift of Jane and David Walentas.  Built in 1922 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, the carousel was purchased in 1984 and painstakingly restored to its original condition.  The carousel is located in the Empire Fulton Ferry section of Brooklyn Bridge Park, housed in an extraordinary new pavilion, designed by Pritzker-prize winning architect Jean Nouvel."

Photo:  Brian Morrissey

Monday, October 29, 2012

Escaping into Beatles Psychedelia in the Throes of the Storm

To drown out the HISSING, HISSING, WHIPPING winds outside the window and the enveloping sickly wet grayness, I am escaping into the psychedelic COLORS of the Magical Mystery Tour, and then crawling over to Pepperland.

The Paley Center screened the newly remastered print of MMT, with a panel discussion with Elvis Costello, Steven Van Zandt, Tony Gilroy, Jonathan Clyde of Apple Films, moderated by Bill Flanagan. Magical Mystery Tour is the film the Beatles created themselves. They decided to wing it with no script,  just the Fab 4 on a holiday bus trip to nowhere. For more background and analysis, here is John Harris in the Guardian.

Observations from the panel:

Flanagan: MMT is the film everyone thinks they have seen, but very few have.

It was shown once on the BBC on Boxing Day, 1967,  and Elvis Costello was one of the 15 million who sat down with families at 8:35 pm to watch. On the whole, the audience was not amused, and the BBC was inundated with complaints about this "rubbish."

Elvis reminds the audience that they were watching it in black & white, because almost no one had a color TV in 1967.

Little Stevie called it "a curiosity, with a masterpiece [Walrus] at its center."

Gilroy saw it as a "toolbox" for so much that came after, from the Monkees episodes to Easy Rider to Monty Python. Also how the Beatles could be that unique combination of revolution and nostalgia: "Ken Kesey would not have brought his Aunt on the bus."

Clyde brought up several times what an influence Richard Lester had on the Beatles. When they wanted to do their own film he told them to forget about making a film and approach it like an album.

I can watch "I Am the Walrus" endlessly: I love their clothes, which are much more hip than their the Sgt. Pepper costumes; Paul looks tired but the close-ups on his hands show that easy command of the musician beyond the pop star; John looks happy; Lewis Carroll, even if John said in later interview that he didn't realize the Walrus was the bad guy; "Goo goo ga 'jobb" John swore he made up nonsense after getting a letter from a student at his old Quarry Bank High School who said the teacher was making them analyze Beatles lyrics.

Yellow Submarine

Lucy in the Sky

Hello, Goodbye (which was shown on the Ed Sullivan show and has the most Beatles views on YouTube at 4.1 million)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Life Imitating Art: The Storm and Two Cathedrals

What separates Sandy from the power of the mere Hurricane Irene is its historic convergence of meterological phenomena. From Newsday:

"It's been 69 years since the metropolitan area was hit by a late-season hurricane. Sandy's expected turbulent merger WITH a cold front moving in from the west, AND a southern dip in the jet stream from Canada, will make it a hybrid storm, an even rarer occurrence, experts say."

No West Wing fan can hear that description without thinking of the season two finale "Two Cathedrals," and the tropical storm that had not hit DC in May, out of season, in 100 years, but descended after Mrs. Landingham's funeral and pushed Bartlet to make a decision.

The episode is on many people's list of top 5 episodes in TV history, and Bartlet's confrontation with God in the National Cathedral, partly in Latin, is most often cited. But it is so much more than that, and for me, it's the last 6 minutes that have to do with the storm that put it in the realm of art.

•Like all great works of film, the episode defies time boundaries, meaning  it conveys what seems to be a magical amount of exposition in its 44 minutes. Every stroke is so efficiently and exquisitely planned that the sheer impact of story and emotion and ideas is remarkable.

•The flashbacks to young Jed are beautiful haikus to Jed’s whole relationship with his unloving father and Mrs. Landingham’s “big sister” love and encouragement. They start beautifully integrated into the situation room scene.

•Before he starts speaking in Latin, Barlett lashes out against God killing Mrs. Landingham in the vernacular:

“You're a son of a bitch, You know that? She bought her first new car and You hit her with a drunk driver. What? Was that supposed to be funny? 'You can't conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God', says Graham Greene. I don't know whose ass he was kissing there, 'cus I think You're just vindictive.”

It’s a startling, liberating speech on tv. It’s perfect for the character, it’s perfect for the storyline.

•The funeral itself. Visually moving. Bartlet’s earlier line when Charlie asks him does he need anything, “I need pall bearers” is heart wrenching, in the midst of the MS news breaking

•Then the storm, blowing in Mrs. Landingham's ghost or soul, or just raising the anger in Jed. “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” It’s beautifully filmed, beautifully written:

Bartlet: I've got a secret for you, Mrs. Landingham. I've never been the most popular guy in the Democratic Party.

Mrs. Landingham: I've got a secret for you, Mr. President. Your father was a prick who could never get over the fact that he wasn't as smart as his brothers. Are you in a tough spot? Yes. Do I feel sorry for you? I do not. Why? Because there are people way worse off then you.

•And then comes the finest 6 minutes of one of the finest hours in television: Jed’s walk through the West Wing to the car to go over to the press conference at the State. Dept. to the haunting strains of Dire Straits’s "Brothers in Arms." This music essay within an episode is a tv convention that has been so imitated that it seems trite now, but in 2001 in was still fresh. (Although I must note that Michael Mann scooped Sorkin with BIA by 16 years, in a music essay in Miami Vice's “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run.” Another exquisite hour of television).

Sorkin’s essay has a twinge of Bartlet as Lear, walking in the rain with no coat or umbrella, yet not in madness but in a baptismal rain cleansing his sin of concealing MS; Jed’s own band of brothers falling in behind him as he walks to the car; a beautifully framed motorcade in the rain; the purposeful walking feet shot; the president’s car passing the Cathedral just as the janitor finds the cigarette butt; and at the press podium, Bartlet being Bartlet.

There's no soundtrack to the real power and potential terror of nature unleashed upon people. I dearly hope everyone remains safe. If the essentials are covered, then Aaron Sorkin and Dire Straits do offer some inspiring, serious rain.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Trafalgar Day Meets Me and the First Filmed James Bond

Lord Horatio Nelson and the first screen appearance of
James Bond share a particular detail with me: October 21. It was the date Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805; the date the Climax! anthology series on CBS brought Ian Flemming's Casino Royal to the small screen with Barry Nelson as James Bond in 1954, eight years before Dr. No; and the date I landed on earth (and never you mind what year that was).

The date of your birth is a defining detail of your life, even if you share it with about 300,000 others, the most consistent stat I could find for the daily worldwide birth rate.  (And side note, Apple has now surpassed that number, as Luke Wroblewski tweeted "There are more iPhones sold per day (402k) than people born in the World per day (300k)" More on that here.)

Your birth calendar date is distinct because it's one of your life's defining dates that you get to know, but don't get to choose. Weddings, important employment dates, moving dates you pretty much get to chose. The other defining date—of your death—you don't even get to know. So for me at least, I have always felt a connection to the people and events of 21 October.

The Greatest Hero of the British Navy
My path has crossed Lord Nelson's in various ways. First was That Hamilton Women which I saw as a kid and haven't seen since. I later learned that while Nelson lost his sight in his right eye, he never wore an eye patch! Hollywood strikes again.

I visited the Nelson Dockyards in Antigua when the BFF was working at Carlisle Bay, a Campbell Gray resort in St. Mary's. It's the only continuously working Georgian dockyard in the world, build in English Harbour in the sixteenth century. Nelson was there from 1784 to 1787 as captain of the HMS Boreas, sent to Angtigua to enforce British law in the colonies. I looked at the restored buildings and tried to imagine Olivier/Nelson under that sparkling Caribbean blue sky, which would later be outdone by the sun of Naples.

I have sung the Lord Nelson Mass, the nickname for Haydn's Missa in Angustiis, Mass in Troubled Times, because its first performances came just as Nelson trounced Napoleon in Egypt, the great Battle of the Nile. In 1800 Nelson visited Palais Esterhazy with Lady Hamilton, and may have heard it performed.

But it's Susan Sontag's sweeping historical novel, The Volcano Lover, that brought me the closest to the admiral. I read it when I visited Pompeii with Cadfael and we visited Vesuvius.

Her description at the Battle of Tenerife, where his arm had to be amputated:

'The boat he had stepped out of a right-handed hero, drawing his sword to lead a nighttime amphibious assault on a Spanish fort; the boat that received his senseless body as he fell backward, his right elbow shattered by grape. He had regained consciousness, clawing at the tourniquet near his shoulder. . . he insisted on stopping to pick up survivors. Raging at those who would have helped him, Let me alone! I have my legs left, and one arm! he twisted a rope around his left arm and hauled himself on board, called for a surgeon to come and cut the right one, high up, and a half hour later was on his feet, giving orders to his flag captain in a severe, calm voice.

Now his was a left-handed hero.'

Sontag is mocking her hero a bit, as she follows this paragraph with a made-up, almost Monty Python feat of a physical bravery of some other captain, but that doesn't detract from the physical pain Horatio endured. Beyond the loss of his sight and his arm, he lost all of his teeth in battle, and suffered severe head wounds.

The novel captures the menage a trois between the British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples Sir William Hamilton, his wife Emma Hamilton, and Nelson, who went to Naples on his way to the Egypt campaign, and then returned, injured, when he was taken in to be nursed by Emma and they fell passionately in love.

It does not follow Admiral Lord Nelson to the deck of the HMS Victory at Trafalgar on October 21, but we hear the news and devastating effect on Lady Hamilton from her mother:

Everyone deserted her, even the one she loved most, though he did not mean to die, but why go about the boat in his admiral's frock coat and his stars so a French sharpshooter could find him easy and kill him, if he wanted to stay alive and come back to her.  Men are so foolish.

A personal loss was a country's glory: it was the most decisive British navel victory of the Napoleonic Wars and confirmed Britain's naval supremacy.

Trafalgar Day was a very big deal in 2005 on the two hundredth anniversary.  This year, according to  The Nelson Society site: "It is fitting that at  midday on Sunday 21st October STS Lord Nelson will slip her moorings in Southampton to start an epic world  circumnavigation including a leg around Cape Horn in the spirit of the old clippers." And so the memory and honors live on.

Bond. Jimmy Bond.

On October 21, 1954, the very first moving image depiction of James Bond hit the small screen on the CBS anthology drama series, Climax!. Surprised, aren't you?

Climax brought together a lot of talented people at the dawn of commercial programming, including John Frankenheimer, and composers Jerry Goldsmith & Bernard Herrmann, and producer Martin Manulis.

I don't know why/how Barry Nelson got cast and made the role an American, Jimmy Bond, while Peter Lorre was an inspired Le Chiffre.  More about the production is at this Bond site.

So it was a historic moment, not a successful one.

Just like birthdays.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Funked by the Emmys, Revived by Rick and AJ

I have been afflicted a bit lately from the nearly 6-year itch of the blogger, which hits different people at different times. Tim Footman recently chronicled his own near-anniversary with an homage to "old style blogging," when unrelated ideas flowed so easily, one to the other.

Besides the general wear and tear of weekly blogging, my funk had an odd trigger: the Emmy Award show at the end of September. Not who won/who didn't win, but the show itself.

Starting right as it began with the taped segment "Backstage," which was set in the bathroom with Kathy Bates, Christina Hendricks, Zooey Deschanel, Connie Britton, Martha Plimpton, and Mindy Kaling. Bates hears someone crying and opens a stall to see Lena Dunham, naked, binge eating on the toilet. Then finds the source of the crying is Jimmy Kimmel, crazy eyebrowed with too much botox so he isn't going to go on.

The women say they can punch him into shape, and start punching him in the face one by one.

I don't think award shows of any kind should have a sense of self importance, but it's pretty low to locate your sensibility in the toilet, even with Jimmy Kimmel as host.

I have long been a cheerleader for the intelligent creativity of TV, celebrating its spectrum from Three's Company to Scenes from a Marriage, which Bergman made for Swedish television, fascinated by the power of the "miniseries" to bring people back in front of the screen several nights running. And here I was being assaulted by the industry's projection of itself in the lavatory, with an eating disorder and physical violence, which many people thought was funny. I hated all the Kimmel taped pieces, particularly the mock In Memoriam.

With all the talent who come together to create Homeland and Modern Family, this is how the industry presents itself on "their night." I found it so depressing and disappointing that it took my voice away for a while.

The next day I saw a picture of Jim Parsons and Zooey Deschanel presenting that I love for its composition and color, and for the easy elegance of the actors, even if they look like they escaped from a Pushing Daisies episode. But beneath this facade of beauty, New Girl and Big Bang Theory are on Neil Genzlinger's "Trends That Deserve the Unwelcome Mat," for their reveling in urine gags. Crap, we're back in the bathroom.

I agree with Genzlinger that this is an unwelcomed trend, which worries me a little. He's the guy who took on what is clearly Seinfeld territory, "Really," without referencing Seinfeld. As Jerry declared, "You crumbled a bit of civilization off there yourself."

Rick or AJ?

Well, the funk has lifted, fueled in part by the ridiculous Funny or Die, "Greatest Event in Television History," from Paul Scheer, Adam Scott, Jon Hamm, Paul Rudd, Jeff Probst and their love of Simon & Simon. It's completely over the top, but done by guys who love and know television from its smallest pixel to every inflection that we all picked up on since our impressionable childhood viewing.

Simon & Simon has that great, lame, 1980s magnetism about it. I was just in San Diego and took a city trolley tour. They did not mentioned Simon & Simon when going over the Coronado Bridge, but I will write to tell them they really should.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Tumblring in Washington, DC

I happened to find myself in Washington DC this past week, as 9/11 bled into the horrifying murders of Ambassador Chris Stevens, information officer Sean Smith, security specialist Glenn Doherty and a fourth American whose name I don't think has been released.

Except for a quick visit to the Library of Congress archives three years ago, I had not been in the capital or capitol since a junior high school trip.

The first thing that struck me is the presence of the flag at half staff: unlike NYC, flags are omnipresent, and the constant visual reminder of the national deaths is very poignant.

Our national monuments are impressive, as they need to be to help with the nation building behind E Pluribus Unum. I enjoyed a nighttime bike tour to see their illuminated state, and then returned to see them during the day. That's when they come to life with thousands of visitors: particularly moving are the number of Asian visitors at the Vietnam Memorial, and the elderly veterans in wheelchairs with comrades and friends at the WWII memorial.

Here's my Tumblr-homage to the monuments of the District of Columbia.

Union Station; Jefferson; FDR with Eleanor; MLK; Lincoln; Korea; Vietnam; WWII; Washington; Memorial to the Japanese-American Patriotism in WWII, colloquially known as the Internment Memorial. The names of 10 internment camps are on one side, with the numbers of how many Japanese American were held. My guide said that as the war progressed and the army needed more fighters, men in the camps were conscripted. The names of the men from the camps who died in combat are listed in the bottom picture.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"Out of the Clear Blue Sky": The Story of Cantor Fitzgerald and 9/11

In August I attended some of the DocuDays films at IFC, and one that has stayed with me is Out of the Clear Blue Sky: it's an insider's look at the story of Cantor Fitzgerald and 9/11. With the distance of 10 years it tells the sad, unique story of this company and how people have picked up and moved on as they can from such personal devastation.

Cantor Fitzgerald is a financial services company that specializes in bond trading: it's one of twenty primary dealers who trade U.S. government securities directly with the Fed. In 2001 its corporate headquarters were floors 101 to 105 of the North Tower at the World Trade Center. When terrorists flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the tower, the Cantor people were 2 to 6 floors above impact. Of the 960 employees who worked there, the 658 people who were at their desk all died. The only Cantor employees who lived weren't at the office, or had left the floors for one reason or another.

The deaths from this one company were 24% of all WTC victims.

Filmmaker Danielle Gardner gained the trust of the company and the families to weave the many sides of the complicated overall story together very well: the rise, fall, and rise again of the CEO then and now, Howard Lutnick, who was often seen on TV in the days immediately following the attacks; how the executives regrouped and tried to see who was alive, who was dead, and in the next breath had to decide whether they would fold the company or try to go on; what it meant that they had to borrow $70 billion dollars, which they were given a very short time to pay back.

The story of the cold business of literally making money for people alongside the obscene loss of life gets at the very heart of the attacks. The Towers were targeted because of their connection to the very center of the capitalist system: this wasn't a museum, this is where much of the business of making money in a global economy took palace.

As distasteful as it might seem to be thinking of money at that time, to close the company would be giving the terrorists what they wanted. And so, while in complete shock, Lutnick—who lived because he happened to be taking his son to the first day of school that morning—–set up a crisis center at the Pierre Hotel in midtown for the families as he huddled with whomever was still alive to see if the company could remain open. In those first days relatives still hoped that loved ones would be found, and the agony and despair of that crisis center makes the enormity of the day easier to grasp for the viewer because of its personal level.

One ugly fact on the business side is the phone call the major bond companies had in the afternoon of the the 11th. Lutnick says that a major competitor pushed for the bond floor to reopen on Thursday, the 13. The stock exchange didn't reopen until the following Monday, and there was no reason the bond trades had to go earlier, except that the competitor was hoping to pick up some of the business that Cantor couldn't handle, if they came back on line at all. Yup, capitalism as cold-blooded as it gets.

Cantor did get back online on Thursday, just barely, and that side of the story is fascinating to see unfold told by the people who were there, completely parallel to what was going on in the family crisis center at the Pierre.

I don't remember Howard Lutnick on TV, crying. Apparently he went on nearly every morning/talk program in the week after the attacks. Then there was a controversy that Cantor stopped paychecks for the 658 the week after the attacks. There are nuances to the situation, which I'll leave to the film. But the company fairly quickly set up support groups for the families. First they did it by geography--North Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut, etc---but they soon learned that people needed to be with those shared the same pain, and so it became Widows, Parents, Fiancees, Siblings, etc. All brought together because someone worked at a specific company.

The Cantor Culture

I experienced a small taste of the financial services culture myself. In the late 1980s I worked for a mutual fund company, Lord, Abbett & Co, as a shareholder reports writer/editor. Wall Street had a glamor back then, and I was curious.

Lord Abbett wasn't as high-powered as Cantor in my day. But the bond traders were connected to the world in a unique way at a time  before the internet. Topical jokes went like lightening across their network, and it was a band of brothers, where women were few and far between. It was often a frat party atmosphere, but it was only the smartest guys and they who knew the stakes were very big and very serious. Hence Oliver Stone's Wall Street.

Cantor Fitzgerald was started in 1945 by B. Gerald Cantor and John Fitzgerald. From the stories from the surviving family members, you see Cantor as a company that encouraged bringing in qualified friends and siblings. That's why the number of parents who lost 2 children in the collapse was 27. Widows also lost brothers, because friends brought friends in and marriage ensued. 955 children lost a parent. 38 pregnant wives were left behind. It just can't be said enough: the personal toll of this one company is enormous, and the interviews with some of the parents 10 years out are some of the most poignant moments of the film. So calm, so eloquent, still in shock.

I hope Out of the Clear Blue Sky is shown on TV. The interviews with employees about what it was like to work up in the clouds as well as the attacks and aftermath are a valuable and important oral history. And the last shots of the film, which I won't give away, are very moving as they softly portray the important message, 11 years out: never forget.

Cantor Fitzgerald now has 1,700 employees. The terrorists just didn't get it: you can't kill an idea. Thank God.

A clip from the film.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Travels with Cadfael: The Songs of Elba

"I wanted to ask you why you stopped at the Isle of Elba."

"It was to carry out an order from Captain Leclère. As he was dying he gave me a package to deliver to Marshal Bertrand there.

So that was Edmond Dantes’s excuse—a deathbed promise. Cadfael and I had no such noble focus. Did you know that Dumas decided to write The Count of Monte Cristo after visiting Elba himself? He was traveling with a nephew of Bonaparte’s, and as they sailed back from Elba he saw the other islands in the Tuscan Archipelago——Gorgona, Capraia, Pianosa, Montecristo, Giglio, and Giannutri——and vowed to write a novel in memory of the trip. So there must be something captivating going on there. . . .

I visited Elba during my heady days of travel with my friend the Benedictine monk Cadfael. We were visiting Tuscany, and I wanted to be a completist, so off to Elba we went, driving southwest from San Gimignano to the port of Piombino for the ferry to Portoferraio, the city of Napolean Bonaparte’s first exile.

Our first foray to visit the Emperor’s town residence--Palazzina dei Mulini, located in the highest part of Portoferraio between Fort Stella and Fort Falcone--was nearly thwarted by the port’s tiny stone streets, and the fact that there is no place to park. Being a New Yorker I thought I understood the meaning of those words, but I was close to weeping after circling through an eternity of narrow stone streets that wouldn’t allow us to get where we needed. Luckily, Cad is deeply unflappable, and an extremely skilled driver. He piloted the Micra onto sidewalks, performed the drive-backwards-up-an-entire-hilled-street maneuver, and coaxed the mighty Micra down a flight of stairs—all to outflank those one-way signs.

Cad won, as usual, and the Micra was finally parked. We bounded up to the Palazzina only to see “Chiuso,” those most dreaded of Italian letters. Undaunted, we took ourselves to the Emperor’s summer residence, Villa di San Martino, at 6 km from Portoferraio along the road to Marciana. The man was only on the island for a total of 10 months, but decorum at all times.

I am not an imperialist at heart, but I was jazzed to be walking through the exiled Bonaparte’s bedroom, and his study, and to look out where he surveyed the sea, when we finally got into his town residence the next day.

But what I remember most about Elba overall is color and sky: the pink of Bonaparte’s town residence under a huge, tropical blue sky. Later in the day we drove west, away from the towns, on a mountainous road above the sea. The sky there was huge, majestic, and humbling, and we drove into layers of grey and blue offset by the sun’s gold. Peter Gabriel was our soundtrack as we egg-and-darted along the rising road, going deeper and deeper into that space between sea and sky. I understood what could have made such an impression on Dumas.

It was September 2002 . . . 
This trip had a very poignant timing. I got on a plane in New York on September 12, 2002, the day after the first anniversary of the attacks.  It was still a sad, dark, heavy time, and unease all around, as we didn't know if there would be more murders a year after. But as we said, we have to keep moving, and so to the airport I went to start this trip.

We spent our first Elban evening in the hotel. The lobby was pleasant—-the white tile floors spoke to the beachiness of the location, and the décor was clean and modern. To the left of the bar was a baby grand piano. Cad plays by ear, and has a good tenor voice. He asked the manager if he could play for a bit, and he said yes. There were small clusters of guests scattered throughout the lobby, mostly German tourists.

Actually there are so many German visitors on Elba, and the language is so prevalent, that it is a little disorienting. “M.A., can we please go back to Italy?"

At the piano, Cad’s repertoire is easy listening on the sentimental side, but with a musician’s flair. I sat by his side as he sang Piano Man and She's Always a Woman and joined in for some harmonies on Thunder Road and Four Green Fields. He sang out, but it was not intrusive and we could hear the soft conversation buzz throughout. There was some sweet applause when the set ended. It was nice.

Ah, the drink break.

Refueled, Cad started playing again, noodling around a theme, then playing it straight out: Oh my gosh, it was America the Beautiful. I was stunned to hear the tune. I hadn’t been thinking at all about home, and that haunting melody can put a lump in my throat at the very best of times.

To keep from crying I tried to focus on Cad’s expressive phrasing, and somewhere in the second verse I heard myself adding the harmony. Cad modulated during a verse interlude, and we sang the last verse in a higher key, putting the “alabaster cities gleam/undimmed by human tears” into a stronger part of vocal ranges.

When the song ended, we realized that everyone in the room had stopped talking. I felt a little numb, very self-conscious, and a little embarrassed. How cheesy was this? Would we come across as obnoxious Americans?

There were several beats of complete, palpable, silence . . . and then the conversation buzz picked up again. A hug from the strangers in the room would not have felt more embracing.

Cad went to get us drinks, and we sat and drank, for quite a while.

The next day we left to go back to Rome.