Monday, May 28, 2012

Paul Fussell, Scotch, a Birthday & the Sophomore: A Shaggy Dog Story

Last week, just as I was leaving for Memorial Day weekend in the South, fate decreed it was time for Paul Fussell's obituary to run. I had thought about him not too long ago, wondering where he was, how old age was treating him.

It's an Irish custom to tell stories at the wake, one he appreciated, so I offer this Paul Fussell tale of thrills, chills, and romance.

Here's the punchline: I almost had some serious liver damage from a very private dinner party he threw, which in no way is a commentary on his alcohol consumption or alcohol ethos. It's just a statement of fact in a funny story. And along the spine of the story was this:

At Rutgers, I was smitten with a junior art/psychology major whom I'll call the Artist; a French major whom I'll call the Navigator was smitten with me; and Fussell was intrigued by the Navigator for a time, which brought him into our personal spheres outside of his professorial role.

All Because of T.E. Lawrence
I met Fussell as an incoming Freshmen at Rutgers College, still intoxicated (metaphorically)  from my high school entrancement of T. E. Lawrence and the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I had seen in the course catalogue that Fussell taught a class in literature of the First World War and I assumed Lawrence would be in it. I had no idea who Fussell was nor what the National Book Award was, so it was easy to go to his office hours to see if I could take the 300 level class as a freshmen (!) confident as I was in my knowledge of the Turkish campaign. He told me T.E was not in the curriculum, but invited me to sign up. As a freshman. The class was literary catnip for me, and brought me a treasured lifelong connection to Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, and Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That.

In the fall of my Sophomore year I registered for Fussell's 18th century class, as did the Navigator, even though he was a French major. It was part of his plan to declare himself to me to start taking classes I was in and joining activities I was involved with. This plan to get me to notice him---even though he knew I was pining for the Artist (this was college, everyone knew everything)—was pretty elaborate, like something in a Happy Endings episode, and as Penny would say, it could seem charming or creepy. Anyway, that's how my suitor came into Fussell's sphere.

Navigator was older than the rest of us, having gone into the Navy for 2 years to help pay for his college. Maybe he was 25, I never asked, but he had a remarkable sense of classical youth about his face. He wasn't extremely handsome, like the Greek Adonis, or pretty beautiful, like Narcissus, but there was an openness and timelessness about him that would be very intriguing to a man of Fussell's sensibilities in middle age. Not necessarily a sexual interest, although it skimmed the edges of the homoerotic simply because the idea of youth is so singularly pleasing.

A Birthday, Halloween, Mononucleosis, and A Dinner Invitation
Across this little morass of cross interests several things happened in rapid succession: My birthday is October 21, and the Navigator told me he had a special present for me, but it wasn't ready yet. In the meanwhile, I was going through the emotional ringer repeatedly with the Artist, while doing very intense work on the courses I was carrying, and taking part in all the extra-circular activities college has to offer. On Halloween, which was a Friday that year, my dorm threw a major party. Somewhere in the early morning hours I knew I didn't feel well, and went to bed. I woke up some hours later in violent physical spasms: I was extremely ill.

My roommate was away, and it was the dark ages with a phone only in the hall, not that it mattered because my tongue was swelling up. It was one of the scariest mornings of my life. I fell onto the floor, and literally crawled to my neighbor's door and fell against it. Thank God she opened it, and got help. Rutgers had an accredited hospital wing in Hurtado, on College Ave., and I was admitted.

Diagnosis: mononucleosis, a very severe case. I had not "felt tired" leading up to it, which is why the onset was so violent. I had a high fever, my glands were swollen everywhere, and I had welts on my legs below my knees (which Hurtado being connected to a teaching hospital, brought little teams of residents in every day to look at).

Friends came to visit, Reagan was elected president, and the Navigator sent along a distinctive monarch size envelope with the 26 Lilac Lane, Princeton return address. It was an invitation for dinner for the two of us with Paul Fussell at his home. The Navigator had gone to Fussell and asked if he would invite "us" over for dinner as a birthday present for me. Beneath the crustiness, PF was a not-yet-cured romantic; he was drawn to the Navigator himself, and knew me as the crazy T.E. Lawrence lover, and so he agreed. The planning had been going on for a while, as PF looked to confirm a date, which he had now done for November 16. But there I was, in the hospital, on November 1.

There isn't any specific treatment for mono. Once the fever was over, and all the swelling down and I was re-hydrated, it was the classic "bed rest." I was discharged from the hospital on Sunday, November 9, when my parents had come over to help me get back to my room. It's a little unusual to get discharged on a Sunday, because it is a skeleton staff. I don't remember receiving any medical instructions (an important point later on) nor a follow-up appointment. After all, it was "just" mono.

Back in my room, I had a week to sleep to be ready for that dinner party.

"What can I get you to drink?"
Sunday the 16th came, and the Navigator and I took the bus from Rutgers to Princeton. I wasn't feeling great, but I was so happy that I was well enough to go that I didn't think much about it. (And that became part of the problem.)

PF was warm and inviting. He had invited a graduate student couple too, to round things out, to whom he introduced the Navigator and me as "two of his favorite undergrads."

I was nervous, of course, and then things took an unfortunate turn when our host naturally asked, "what can I get you to drink?"

I didn't really drink at that time. It wasn't a consciousness decision not to drink, I just wasn't in a clique where the point was drinking. I knew I didn't like beer, and so I had absolutely no answer to that question. So I asked "what do you have?" and Fussell rattled off some stuff, and when he got to scotch and soda, for some ungodly reason, I said yes. Thank God I also said "yes" when he asked if I wanted it on the rocks.

The five of us sat in the living room where PF brought me my very first, classic tumbler of what I'm sure was excellent scotch. Whoa. That was a lot of scotch and a little soda. I don't know what I was expecting but it kicked all the way down, even if it was a velvety smooth kick.

The problem was that the drink became too much of my focus: could I keep sipping this? Was it noticeable? I started praying that maybe the ice would melt faster, which would dilute it and make it easier to drink.

Oh, were people having a conversation? I barely knew. Was I saying anything?

It was then time to move to the table. I took one more gulp and I think finished the gold liquid.

PF was serving barbequed spare ribs, which his housekeeper/cook had prepared, and pairing it, of course, with a perfect California red.

Wine. Yes, I had had wine, but not yet on top of a cocktail. Of course I could have asked for water, or a soda, but I didn't yet have the social skills to request something of a host. And so I had a some wine, even more than one glass because now everything was funny and light and without anxiety! Unsurprisingly I remember almost nothing of the conversation, happy to at least have a pretty clear memory of us all sitting at that dining room table.

Dinner slid into dessert, and he offered after-dinner drinks with the coffee which I had some wits to decline.

It was time for the Navigator and me to go. It had been a good evening and PF seemed to enjoy himself.

I Become Hemingway?
Navigator and I took the bus back to Rutgers. I wish I could say that this grand gesture on his part made me fall in love with him, but unfortunately, I was still besotted with the Artist. So he walked me to my door and went to his floor. I went into my room, and then it all hit.

I was painfully drunk, and in the worst way. It felt like my body was burning up but I was freezing. My roommate was again away (Rutgers is a quasi-commuter school for lots of people), and here I was again, stuck in my room in physical distress.

I went into our section's bathroom and lay on the floor. That felt a little better, but I was thinking death would not be such a bad thing. I had been to a private dinner party with Paul Fussell. Nunc Dimittis. But that was not to be. I kept on breathing, my hearth kept beating, as I let the waves of spinning pass over me. The Hemingyway-in-his-heyday ending to the evening was not lost on me, but it was for a very different reason. It's not that I matched Papa shot for shot, but that I had mono. The virus affects the liver as much as it does all the nodes of the endocrine system. Which is why YOU CAN'T DRINK WHEN YOU HAVE MONO. But no one had told me.

I was seriously very lucky that my liver came through intact, so that this could be a funny story of youthful folly, and not the beginning of needing a liver transplant at such a young age.

Sentimental Education
I once asked PF what novels should I read over the summer. One he suggested was Sentimental Education, which I never did read. And though the themes of the novel are more pessimistic, the title applies to Fussell's actual life as a professor, which contradicts some of the more sensational stuff in print.

It had been extremely gracious of PF to throw a dinner in the service of romance. It shows that the off-quoted ""I find it very hard to learn my students' names," he says. "They're items out of a cookie cutter, you know. I have to labor at it. I have no interest." from the 1983 People magazine article was not the whole story.

For several years he threw a party at the end of The Great War and Modern Memory class for all his students, on a Saturday. The year I took the class the invite read: Massenerstamlungen: To commemorate the 62nd anniversary of the German counterattack of Spring, 1918; Saturday, May 3. Again, not an action of a man who dislikes his students.

One day in the 18th century class he brought in a stand-up cardboard display for Amstel beer, like something you'd see in a bar. His daughter had just gotten that account, and somehow he had gotten the display. He raffled it off. Everyone wrote down a number on the seating chart, and then he pulled a number out of cup. (Oddly enough, I won). It was a silly/funny thing to do with a class of 18th century lit, but he was making a connection.

I remained on the edges of PF's life for the years I was at Rutgers, meeting up occasionally for lunch as his marriage ended and Harriet came into his life, and we corresponded for a good 15 years after. He had promised to one day "sashay" into the then Museum of Television & Radio, although he never did. The "fame" that came with that People magazine and onward may have had a deleterious affect on him.  I did not read Class, or Bad, content to have known the literary scholar, and the satiric/sardonic social commentator only in passing.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Adventure of the Speckled Wall: Sherlock, You're Needed

"On glancing over my notes of the seventy odd cases in which I have during the last eight years studied the methods of my friend Sherlock Holmes, I find many tragic, some comic, a large number merely strange, but none commonplace; for, working as he did rather for the love of his art than for the acquirement of wealth, he refused to associate himself with any investigation which did not tend towards the unusual, and even the fantastic. Of all these varied cases, however, I cannot recall any which presented more singular features than that which was associated with the well-known Surrey family of the Roylotts of Stoke Moran.

The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Strand Magazine, 1892. Watson. Surely the great grandfather of bloggers.

By the light of the corridor-lamp I saw my sister appear at the opening, her face blanched with terror, her hands groping for help, her whole figure swaying to and fro like that of a drunkard. She writhed as one who is in terrible pain, and her limbs were dreadfully convulsed. At first I thought that she had not recognised me, but as I bent over her she suddenly shrieked out in a voice which I shall never forget, ‘Oh, my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!’
Such was the dreadful end of my beloved sister."

2012: The Speckled Wall
I recently experienced a frightening speckled situation, which I feared might end in ill health for myself or my kin. "Oh, my God! It's the wall! The speckled wall!"

Like its predecessor, it was also a "locked room" phenomenon, my bathroom, to be precise.

I noticed a while ago, a strange yellow substance appearing around my medicine cabinet upon my lovely sky-blue renovated wall.  I looked to see where it could be coming from, but there was no discernible source. So, with 7th Generation cleaner I tried to spray it away. It lifted a bit, but there were still very strong traces of it.

Days went by, and the yellow staining returned. Plus, there was now yellow discoloring on all the plastic bottles in the cabinet. So strange. It wasn't a film, it wasn't "wet," even though it looked like smudges. It was like a corrosion, in that the yellow staining became part of the properties (in a chemical sense) of the plastic.

The Speckling Accelerates

I sprayed away the yellowing on the wall again and again, and yet a few days later each time, the speckling was back, with a vengeance. The drip pattern was more pronounced, and the area of the speckling had increased.

It was maddening that I could find no source of this "it looks like paint dripping, but how can that be?!!" What could be causing such a chemical reaction? And was it a toxic reaction?

Finally I got my super to come look at it, to see if we needed to get the EPA involved. He thought that maybe there was water collecting behind the medicine cabinet, and that's what was causing the streaking. He asked me to empty the cabinet, and then he would remove it and see what's going on.

That is how I came to take everything off of its four shelves. And that's when I found . . .

. . .

hiding on the top shelf . . . 

. . .

. . .

. . .

. . . a tiny bottle of Iodine.

Iodine is yellow. Hmm.

When I picked it up, it was empty.

My speckling was the result of the phenomenon of "leaching," when a liquid passes through another substance, in this case, the plastic bottle. And, somehow the liquid that was in the bottle on the top shelf INSIDE THE MEDICINE CHEST became air borne and then interacted with the paint OUTSIDE THE MEDICINE CHEST. The bottom of the Iodine bottle was completely corroded (yes, right below the red skull & crossbones). Chemistry is an amazing thing.

I have no idea what the catalyst was. Iodine sits on shelves in Duane Reades across the city and they don't suddenly leach out.

No wonder Sherlock Holmes was a chemist.

Hence some of the appeal of the Conan Doyle stories: everyone runs into strange things in everyday life, and wouldn't it be great if we could all figure out what's going on.

I love the reinterpretation of the BBC Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The premise is that the original Conan Doyle character does not exist in world literature but Sherlock Holmes is living now, in London. It has great energy and wit, and it will surely lead some of new generations back to the original.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Everyone, Meet Floria and Sidney

I had two interesting professional engagements last week, thanks to Floria Lasky and Sidney Hillman. Each had a substantial career that included service to the larger community, and each had been such a force in their own fields that after their deaths colleagues took the time and effort to create something in their names that bring people together. That's the exciting part.

I greatly admire people whose very lives bring people together. We all try to contribute to the conversation and make an impact where it will tangibly help someone, but that's a talent some people have more than others. And then there's Floria and Sidney, who can do it from the grave.

Floria Lasky

Because Floria met Jerome Robbins as a young women last century . . . there was a workshop of people who run the social media accounts for many of the city's nonprofit cultural institutions.

Here's How:
Floria Vivian Lasky was born in the Bronx on April 24, 1923, the daughter of Polish immigrants, who named her after Floria Tosca, the heroine of Puccini’s opera. She entered Hunter College at the age of 14. After graduating first in her class at New York University law school in 1945, she joined the law firm of Fitelson & Mayers, where she would stay for the next 62 years, eventually becoming a principal.

A master negotiator, she was a leader in the field of entertainment law, representing such clients as Jerome Robbins, Jule Styne, Elia Kazan, Tennessee Williams, and Carson McCullers.

Robbins was a particularly close client and friend. She knew him for more than fifty years, and continued to serve as executor of his estate as president of The Jerome Robbins Foundation and trustee of The Robbins Rights Trust until she died in 2007.

In her honor the Jerome Robbins Foundation created the Floria V. Lasky Award and Symposium. The award this year went to Paul H. Epstein, a partner at Proskauer Rose for nearly 30 years, he founded Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and was instrumental in establishing the George Balanchine Trust and the Leonard Bernstein Office as well as helping to bring Jerome Robbins' Broadway to the stage.

To have even more direct impact on the cultural life of the city, the foundation partnered with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to produce a workshop, Digital & Social Media Strategy: Strategy, Planning, & Implementation. It was a good Saturday afternoon at the Jerome L. Greene Space on Charleton & Varick, with presenters from leading digital agencies and the audience of people who run the social media accounts for cultural nonprofits across the city, which was excellent.

Sure I can always reach out to my social media counterparts--like Christopher Gruits at Carnegie Hall or Doug Reside at NY Public Library for the Performing arts—but in the hectic day to day of the Paley Center, I rarely do. So, thank you Floria, for helping me stay connected.

Livestream of some of the sessions.

Sidney Hillman

Because Sidney immigrated from Lithuania and became a garment labor leader . . . I met some excellent journalists whose work I might have missed, I learned something about Labor Union history, and I connected with fellow bloggers in person.

Here's How:

Sidney Hillman was the founding president of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of America, a predecessor union of Workers United, SEIU. An architect of the New Deal, he fought to build a vibrant union movement extending beyond the shop floor to all aspects of workers’ lives.

Hillman died in 1946. His passing was felt as a deep personal loss by men and women in every walk of life. Before long, the union, which he had led since its founding in 1914, was besieged with requests to create a living memorial to the man who had become the spokesman for progressive industrial democracy.

The Foundation is deeply concerned with the responsibilities of a free press, including radio and television. Since 1950, the Hillman Prize program has honored contributors to the daily, periodical, and labor press, as well as authors and broadcasters.

The very first daily press winner was the great liberal columnist Murray Kempton. In later years, photography and, most recently, blogging, were added as prize categories.

The Sidney Hillman Foundation has sought to illuminate the great issues of the day—from the search for a basis for lasting peace, to the need for better housing, medical care, and employment security for all people, the promotion of civil liberties and the battle against discrimination based on race, nationality, or religion.

And so I was invited to join the Bloggers Committee by old friend Tom Watson, joining Lindsay Beyerstein, Lance Mannion, Howard Greenstein, Marcia Stepanek, Jamil Smith, Jill Filipovic and others to bring some real-time attention to the winners, who included Frank Bardacke, Ta-nehisis Coates, Sarah Stillman, Katie Falkengberg, and Yoav Potash. Danny Glover and Sidney Poitier were inspiring presenters, and lovely to meet.