Beatriz at Dinner

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c9plqpjxcaej29uI am getting thoroughly sick of defeatist, dystopic, dyspeptic, despairing movies, TV shows, and news. I grant you, we live in the era of Trump, and this tone is not surprising or altogether unwarranted. But it’s getting old, this idea that we need to fear and fight some terrible irrational enemy. So I rather welcomed the cool rationality — and heated passion — proffered by  Beatriz at Dinner.

And was dreadfully let down.

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Beatriz at Dinner is about a sensing, feeling, caring healer who loves children and animals, the earth and humanity, who confronts a callous, big game–hunting developer who loves money, power, position, and more money. I thought — as the reviews and preview had promised — that this duel/duet between Salma Hayak and John Lithgow would be a smart, savage airing of differences à la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But it wasn’t. It wasn’t even a fair fight, and when I tell you who was unfair, you will be surprised.

The movie’s premise is flimsy to an extreme: Beatriz can’t get her car to start after giving her long-time client a relaxing massage in advance of an Important Business Dinner Party. The client, sufficiently grateful for Beatriz’s healing ministrations to her daughter during a bout of cancer that she considers her a friend, impulsively suggests Beatriz join the party.

A really really bad idea, and one that could have been so easily averted through an Uber offer or a brisk refusal — particularly when Cathy’s husband makes it clear to both Cathy and inadvertent eavesdropper Beatriz that she is not wanted.

But here she is, and when the first invited guests arrive, Beatriz gamely jumps in, immediately winning confessions from them of their most private and personal problems (he suffers from kidney stones), and I felt hopeful the movie would build on this: that outsider Beatriz would subtly bring out the best and expose the ignoble.

And ignoble Lithgow’s character is: smug, arrogant, avaricious, and amoral. After he initially mistakes her for the help, he then cuts her off, patronizes her, and proceeds to ignore her. Which is of course crummy of him, but her insistence on interjecting herself and her self-righteousness into the party’s complex dynamic is equally inappropriate. For heavens’ sake, she throws his cell phone, tells Cathy to shut up, and dresses down the guest of honor. I found my sympathies lodged firmly with the mortified hostess.

As Beatriz’s indignation mounts, the rest of the dinner guests — their generally repugnant values and sense of entitlement nothwithstanding — remain relatively polite and well bred. Her anger seems out of proportion, out of place. I am sure this was an intentional choice on the filmmakers’ part: to have the humanist’s hysteria countered by the calm of the cruel. But it really didn’t work for me: she had no business being there, and no real reason to rail.

At the end, Beatriz slits Doug Strutt’s throat, bringing down her own big game. Except not really; it was a fantasy and instead she drops the letter opener and moves toward Strutt. And here is what I think should have happened: she should have embraced him. Not to forgive him or condone him, but to love and acknowledge his humanity. But instead she leaves with the tow truck driver, only to stop him part way through the trip so that she can climb down to and walk into the Pacific Ocean to her death. And here too I had an alternative: when she died, so too should Doug. Showing a kind of cosmic, karmic balance in keeping with Beatriz’s worldview.

The movie is being proclaimed as a tale of the Trump era. And I know that I should not deplore it for not being the film I wanted it to be, but should accept it on its own terms. But I long for meaningful engagement, even more so in our fictions since the stalemate in our government and national dialogue denies it. I had hoped the dinner party would feature the confident parry and thrust of scintillating verbal swordplay. But there was no meaningful debate, no exchange, no enlightenment, just a calcification and validation of each person’s own beliefs. I realize this was a deliberate choice by the writer and director. But what hope can we have if even our fantasies are defeatist? We can build on acceptance; we cannot move forward in polarization.

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Their Finest

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Their Finest Hour and A Half
Directed by Lone SherfigThis isn’t the best movie we’ve seen in the last quarter (that would be Franz), nor the most thought provoking (which would probably be Paterson). But it is one that we saw between deadlines, allowing me time to write and ponder.

Their Finest tells the story of a young woman who discovers her calling, her confidence, and her soulmate when she takes a job as a screenwriter with a team of Baker Street Irregulars trying to make an inspiring and authentic film that will boost morale and resonate with audiences increasingly finding standard-issue war pictures laughably out of touch. It is funny and well acted, and the resulting movie-within-a-movie is surprisingly touching.

What I liked most about Their Finest I gleaned in its first few minutes, reading the credits. A woman director — Dogme 95’s Lone Scherfig, whose work we first discovered in the charming Italian for Beginners — a woman writer, women doing the music, the design, the editing. This is very good, and very important. Because if women — as well as minorities — don’t get a chance to work on things, how can they get better at their craft? And how can we, the audience, come to accept and appreciate their vantage point and their visions? So this is very good. Just as it was very good to see Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a well-made classic horror movie with a black protagonist, skillfully allowing us to see the world — and experience a correspondingly nuanced dread — through his eyes.

We have been rather steeped of late in World War II, watching a lot of documentaries on Hitler and the Reich, and just beginning a Netflix series, Five Came Back, on noted Hollywood directors, film, and the war. Plus my longest book thus far this year was on the Mitford sisters. Not to mention my growing conviction that the root of all our present ills lies in the dying-off of the last of the Great Generation taking with it its conception of self-sacrifice, commitment, and shared humanity. So we were primed for a respectful and respectable treatment of the war in Britain.

But it didn’t quite click, and the war didn’t register as it should. “Their finest” is a truncation of Churchill’s exhortation to the British people on the brink of battle. Even though it’s made a pun in the title of the novel on which the film is based (Their Finest Hour and a Half), the distillation to two words in the film’s title is a direct harkening to Churchill, and should be a sign that this is about the ordinary British in an extraordinary time. And it is about ordinary people rising to challenges they did not foresee, but these are all to do with personal struggles, not epic strivings — about overcoming disappointment and deficiency, not steadfastly facing down existential menace. Telling the story of a woman’s awakening against the backdrop of World War II is not wrong (in the way, for example, that I find placing the cynical Kelly’s Heroes in this war is), but to me Their Finest did not take good advantage of the opportunities this setting provided to better highlight the tale and clarify the conflicts. And mostly, to make us feel the desperate stakes involved.

Which is really too bad, because the movie had a lot going for it, and just perhaps needed another couple of drafts of the screenplay.

Here is what was especially good: Bill Nighy, who because he is so compelling, rather stole the picture away from the central characters. His portrayal of a preening, pompous actor past his prime, resentfully participating in the film but gradually coming to a new awareness of the talents and contributions of others, was superb, and his character arc is very much in keeping with the promise of the title. Plus it is a line of his that encapsulates what I took to be the theme of the piece, as he encourages the heroine to take up the challenge offered her since the reason old men like him and women like her are being given the opportunities they are is because all the young men are off at the war, dying.

Unfortunately, the main story line is not as interesting. The nascent screenwriter takes the job to support her artist mate and finds herself increasingly attracted to her brilliant, prickly mentor/writing partner Buckley. The promising setup quickly becomes a rather predictable love story, and I’m not sure why it had to be. There are so many interesting real-life platonic male-female writing partnerships: Comden and Green come to mind, and the writer/office mates Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley (if their office had been any smaller, Parker noted, it would have been adultery). These couples found something inspiring and affirming in each other — and then went home to lovers and spouses. That would have been a very interesting tack for this story to take, particularly in light of what ends the relationship.

But the main problem I think is that none of these people have a direct link to the war; the men aren’t in battle, and the danger presented is of a random nature — like terrorism? — as they dodge the London blitz. So there’s less sense of a stalwart commitment to a larger cause, less noble stoicism, less finest hour, than a feeling of living through a daily round of Russian roulette. The real war becomes a haphazard hazard, as the characters attempt to fashion meaning in their film out of hoax and hokum. That they succeed makes this very interesting, justifying Buckley’s separation of authenticity from truth, but this is not where Their Finest focuses.

Where to?

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Edvard Munch, The Day After

Edvard Munch, The Day After

 

It feels like a century since the election and an eon since the inauguration. In between, my technology, husband, and self — all normally quite healthy — have been subjected to an array of ills ranging from the mundane to the exotic, but — rather fittingly — all quite unforeseen and unprepared for. None especially major, and all mostly patched up now.

The world is off kilter. Yesterday’s marches — and I participated in our little Asbury march, not so little at 6,000 people — go some way toward restoring equilibrium, giving people a sense of community, comradeship, hope. That is not to discount those holding other convictions: I fear their betrayal by this administration is yet to come.

At the marches, we were both individuals and a united force. Now that the marches are over, we must continue to be both. As individuals, we must be ourselves, think for ourselves, analyze and abstract meaning from bewilderingly biased news sources and echo chambers and bubbles and amidst blatant lies.

As a force united, we must understand rather than merely anticipate the challenge, specify concrete goals, focus our energies, seek and harness our commonalities across the political spectrum — and try to do our best.

Henri Matisse, La danse

Henri Matisse, La danse

 

So now it is time to get back up to work, to push through the miasma of fear and uncertainty, and to try to find meaning through action.

I don’t exactly know the answer to the title of this post, but I think the way forward will become clearer each day.

I hope so. In the meantime, I will tackle the tasks near at hand, give guidance and comfort where I can, and watch and wait till the path ahead becomes clear.

Gustave Caillebotte, Les raboteurs de parquet

Gustave Caillebotte, Les raboteurs de parquet

The Band’s Visit

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It is always a risk to get show tickets in January, but we were very intrigued by the premise of this play (we had not seen the movie): a band of Egyptian musicians mistakenly shows up in a tiny backwater Israeli desert town. I was longing for catharsis, and the promise of off-Broadway, Tony Shaloub, and David Cromer made me think I would find it. Alas, I was not taken outside of myself (that’s a lot to ask), but The Band’s Visit made humane and intelligent points in a manner both smart and artistic, so I am glad we braved the snowstorm and headed into the city for an adventure.

A bit of research reveals that the movie and the show are actually quite similar; the story told is very personal, very individual. In fact, the show opens with these projected words: “Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” There is no large message of a clash of cultures, or even a sense of a looming larger culture capriciously pervading and perverting the lives and hopes of ordinary people—a favorite theme of mine—as in Andy Garcia’s rich and poignant The Lost City. Here, we have eight strangers who have descended on a place of desolation and lives lived in quiet desperation. And they meet and they interact and they share and they connect and they part. And we learn that the lives on both sides have been in quiet desperation, and will likely continue that way. But there was a moment and there was a connection, and that’s what this musical celebrates.

The main medium for the connection is music, which both transcends and underpins all human lives. Music is the universal language. (Composer and lyricist David Yazbek promotes the preeminence of music through numerous synesthetic allusions throughout the songs, which taste, and see, and touch.)  But while music can draw the characters together, it is not sufficient to enable them to share thoughts, or ideas, or experiences. To communicate with each other, the musicians and the Israelis must speak English—which is not their native language, and their sometimes awkward, inelegant, or simplistic phrasings point up the inadequacy of language as well as the necessity to keep trying to reach across divides with words.

Which brings me to what I found to be the loveliest exchange in the play. A middle-aged man is leaving his daughter’s house, where one of the musicians, also a middle-aged man, is staying the night. Earlier, the men sang Gershwin’s “Summertime” together. Now, as they part, the Israeli says “Sholem Aleichem” by way of farewell, and the Egyptian responds with an Arabic phrase (I didn’t quite catch it, but I think and hope it was “as-salaam alaykum”). And that got me. They didn’t speak English, because that was foreign to them; they were saying a fond farewell, and so they reached for their native languages, even though those languages were not understandable to each other. They were hoping that the gist of what they wanted to convey, the spirit, would pass through the language barrier. And it did. Not in any big sentimental way, but just two comrades passing in the night, temporarily alleviating the ills and ails.

No lives were perhaps changed, no permanent friendships or liaisons established. Eight strangers arrived, were taken in, and left. And the show ends. But the director then wisely gave us a short, joyful, and rousing concert featuring the talented cast of musician/actors: mirroring the play—another shared moment of transient connection among human beings brought together just this once.

2016 Round-Up

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Books (me)

  • What You Make It: A Book of Short Stories, Michael Marshall Smith
  • Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, Dave Itzkoff
  • Grandmama of Europe, Theo Aronson
  • The Scapegoat, Daphne du Maurier
  • So, Anyway…, John Cleese
  • Subliminal: The Revolution of the New Unconscious and What It Teaches Us About Ourselves, Leonard Mlodinow
  • Falling Angel, William Hjortsberg
  • Inspector Queen’s Own Case, Ellery Queen
  • On the Move: A Life, Oliver Sacks
  • Mrs. McThing: A Play, Mary Chase
  • Max Perkins Editor of Genius, A. Scott Berg
  • Control, William Goldman
  • The Making of Donald Trump, David Ray Johnston
  • Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
  • Let Me Tell You, Shirley Jackson
  • The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, Leonard Mlodinow
  • The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy, Kliph Nesteroff

A fair balance of old and new, fiction and non, escapist and serious. The short works from Smith and Jackson were almost uniformly excellent, and lingered deliciously. The du Maurier, Ellery Queen, and Goldman were not up to their usual standards, but still quite readable. Of the nonfiction, the science works by Mlodinow were standouts—he is an optimist and sees an upside in the fact of a large percentage of our brain and its workings remaining inaccessible to our conscious mind. Like Oliver Sacks, his humanity shines through. Aside from the Trump, which was useful and depressing, the biographies were delightful: the Perkins I have written about previously, the Cleese was surprisingly modest and friendly, Sacks’s was so lovely and poignant, and Aronson’s breezy treatment of Victoria’s children and grandchildren was an enduring pleasure. The two other nonfiction works were much less successful, with both Itzkoff’s take on Chayevsky’s masterpiece and Nesteroff’s panorama of 20th century comedy essentially striking me as wasted efforts. Neither ultimately makes an important point, and Nesteroff in particular had no intention of killing his darlings in order to make a coherent narrative. Colum McCann’s book was excellent, and it was fun to read the source novel for  Angel Heart.

Books (Steve)

  • The Teammates, David Halberstam
  • Indignation, Philip Roth
  • Town and City, Jack Kerouac
  • So, Anyway…, John Cleese
  • A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
  • Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  • Looking for Chet Baker, Bill Moody
  • Paganini’s Ghost, Paul Adams
  • Thoughts without Cigarettes, Oscar Hijuelo
  • Don Quixote, Cervantes
  • Heart of Crow Country, Joe Medicine Crow
  • Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
  • Mr. Arkadin, Orson Welles
  • The Fortunate Pilgrim, Mario Puzo

Steve’s favorite was Don Quixote, which he had wanted to read for years. He greatly enjoyed the Hijuelo book; that author died this past year. Roth and Kerouac are favorite authors of Steve’s, and they did not disappoint. His summer beach book was Heart of Crow Country; he has always had an affinity for Native Americans, since his days on the reservation with Waho—a long story.

Books (Martin)

My brother wanted to contribute his lists to our annual round-up; I think just to show us up with his prolific readings.

  • Grandmama of Europe, Theo Aronson
  • A Play of Isaac, Margaret Frazer
  • A Play of Dux Maraud, Margaret Frazer
  • The Novice’s Tale, Margaret Frazer
  • The Fleet Street Murders, Charles Finch
  • Arsenic and Old Books, Miranda James
  • Where Shadows Dance, C.S. Harris
  • Arlene Francis, Arlene Francis
  • A Stranger in Mayfair, Charles Finch
  • The Abbot’s Agreement, Mel Starr
  • Christmas Crimes, Anne Perry
  • The Servant’s Tale, Margaret Frazer
  • Paganini’s Ghost, Paul Adams
  • The Wars of the Roses, Dan Jones
  • Pythagoras’ Revenge, Arturo Sangalli
  • Murder on Amsterdam Avenue, Victoria Thompson
  • On the Move: A Life, Oliver Sacks
  • A Burial at Sea, Charles Finch
  • The Probability of Murder, Ada Madison
  • Shooting for the Stars, R.G. Belsky
  • A Play of Knaves, Margaret Frazer
  • Death of a Stranger, Anne Perry
  • A Play of Lords, Margaret Frazer
  • The Case of the Haunted Husband, Erle Stanley Gardner
  • Divine Inspiration, Jane Langton
  • Digging Up the Dirt, Miranda James
  • The Thief of Venice, Jane Langton
  • The Paris Librarian, Mark Pryor
  • The Angel Court Affair, Anne Perry
  • Cruel is the Grave, Sharon Kay Penman
  • The Whole Cat and Caboodle, Sofie Ryan
  • Presidents of America, Jon Roper
  • The Edge of Dreams, Rhys Bowen
  • A Death in the Small Hours, Charles Finch
  • Murder in the White House, Margaret Truman
  • I Loved Her in the Movies, Robert Wagner
  • Murder in the Ball Park, Robert Goldsborough
  • Coming to Our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • The Queen’s Head, Edward Marston
  • Buy a Whisker, Sofie Ryan

Concert

Our only concert this year was seeing Donovan at Peekskill’s Paramount Theater. It was the most low-key, friendly, cozy concert imaginable. He sat cross-legged on rugs piled up on a little platform on the stage. There were no lighting effects, no other musicians, no props. Just Donovan telling stories and singing songs and weaving a quietly magical spell of peace. So nice.

Dance, Theater, and Performance

  • Mathilda (Broadway)
  • Burnished by Grief (Talking Band)
  • You Better Werk (Sarah)
  • City of Glass (based on Paul Auster story)
  • Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare in the Park)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (Robert Wilson)
  • Twyla Tharp and Three Dances
  • Hamlet (Public Theater Mobile Unit)
  • Puppet Slam (La MaMa)
  • Carnival of the Animals (Columbia)
  • A Christmas Carol (No. 11)
  • The Front Page (Broadway)

Of course, the best was Julie’s A Christmas Carol and Sarah’s You Better Werk. Both productions were refreshing in their sincerity and essential optimism. As to the rest, the two Public productions were Steve’s first professionally staged Shakespeare plays, and he found them to be accessible, rousing, and absorbing. I particularly liked how the director set the mood for Hamlet, as she did as the show toured the boroughs of New York, reaching diverse audiences throughout the city, drawing everyone in with its universalities. Mathilda was very strong, with interesting and at times subtle staging and an uplifting, moral message of individuality and intellectuality; and of course, in all of these, the diction was perfect (all, of course, due to Julie—and what fun to see her listed in a Broadway Playbill!). Our two La MaMa shows were suitably offbeat and arresting. We always love seeing the Talking Band’s work, even when we don’t entirely get it, and it was such a treat for the annual Puppet Slam (short puppet pieces of varying tone and texture) to be held on a weekend, so we could finally go. The standout of that evening was a touching and simple piece, created by the puppeteer’s father: the little marionette learned to roller skate, and it was sheer joy. Not as successful for us were Krapp’s Last Tape, which completely eluded (and frankly, bored) both of us; and the Twyla Tharp, which just didn’t move us as she has in the past. I reviewed City of Glass earlier this year. As for The Front Page, it was great to see up close and personal some truly outstanding talent, notably Robert Morse and Nathan Lane. But in general, I found the director’s choices and presentation to be rather flat: the delivery and pacing never crackled and you never really got the nostalgia inherent in the piece—a rueful appreciation of a time and a species now long vanished. Plus the costumer design was not good; no sense of the era, and a very silly joke for Holland Taylor’s hat and coat.

And we also started the year with a play in our bathtub, which was tremendous fun and caused quite the stir here! The wildest part was that it was advertised in the NY Times, which brought a couple here who already had connections to us and the piece but didn’t know it till they arrived: he is a local poet whom I have worked with in past Gargoyles and she was the playwright’s babysitter a decade ago!

Movies

  • Anomalisa
  • 2016 Live Action Shorts and 2016 Animated Shorts
  • Hail, Caesar!
  • Brooklyn
  • The Hateful 8
  • Lady in the Van
  • Experimenter
  • 45 Years
  • Hello, My Name Is Doris
  • The Man Who Knew Infinity
  • A Bigger Splash
  • Citizen Four
  • The Lobster
  • Maggie’s Plan
  • The New Girlfriend
  • Absolutely Fabulous
  • Genius
  • Cafe Society
  • The Dressmaker
  • Sully
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Indignation
  • Equity
  • Eight Days a Week
  • Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
  • 99 Homes
  • Deconstructing The Beatles’ White Album
  • Nocturnal Animals
  • Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened

These are the movies we either saw in movie theaters or could have seen at the movies, but we missed them and caught them soon thereafter on Netflix or, in one case, PBS. A few were stunningly innovative: Anomalisa, the wistful tone of which I can still summon up after almost a year; the grand and glorious and gleeful The Hateful 8; the baffling The Lobster; the sleek Nocturnal Animals, whose style unfortunately outran its substance, but still, what images!; and Experimenter, a thoroughly riveting account of the work and life of Stanley Milgram, so absorbingly and interestingly told. Perhaps the one we liked best of all, though, was the documentary Eight Days a Week. This clean, sincere, and utterly heartfelt depiction of the Beatles’s touring years was moving and sweet. What came through so clearly was that these four were a team, a partnership. No scandals, no snark, just appreciation. And, together with another documentary we saw later in the year, Deconstructing The Beatles’ White Album, so educational and enriching. A few of our choices didn’t live up to our expectations, notably Cafe Society, which was simply terrible; Equity, which had all the right ingredients for twisty, but just didn’t do it; Indignation, which missed the scope of the book, focusing too narrowly on the love story; and Hello, My Name Is Doris, which fell into all the traps of movies made for and about women of a certain age: an assumption that they have the same needs and desires as women of the director’s age. Also terrible was the Norman Lear documentary. The remainder were largely enjoyable, and a few contained real pearls: The Dressmaker had a wonderful conceit—why can’t there be beauty in the middle of nowhere for no good reason—but unfortunately left this rather lovely point behind in an increasingly senseless yet ostensibly comic violent third act. And Florence Foster Jenkins contained the most wonderful acting I have ever seen by Hugh Grant.

As with other years, we saw seemingly jillions of other movies online via streaming, Netflix, HBO, and YouTube, among others. We mention a few standouts here: The Big Short; which was superlative; CBGB, an unexpected pleasure with Alan Rickman; a somber and uplifting The Railway Man; Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way, which turned out to be frothy and delightful and charming; and the oddly stirring and evocative old Michael Powell movie, I Know Where I’m Going!, with Wendy Hiller and amazing cliffs of Scotland. We also revisited several old favorites, including Barton Fink, The Usual Suspects, Quiz Show, and The Sound of Music—which was actually a first time viewing for Steve.

I should also mention a few outstanding documentaries, all of which were tremendously insightful and thought provoking: Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview, which really shone a light on his brilliance; The Day Kennedy Died, which pieced together a cohesive narrative to a story we are so used to hearing in bits and fragments; Women He’s Undressed, an innovative and entertaining take on the life of Orry-Kelly; Boom Bust Boom, another innovative effort, this one from Terry Jones on economic cycles; (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, my favorite science documentary of the year; and the excellent Muscle Shoals, All Things Must Pass, and Spymasters.

In TV, we continued our fascination with Mad Men, stubbornly not ending it just shy of the last episode; and became entranced with both Stranger Things and Insecurity.

Food

Standout new find was right here in Asbury: Capitoline, a fun cheap eats joint. Speakeatery became the year’s favorite for subs, and Pacini’s in Red Bank for pizza. Miss Saigon in Freehold supplied sorely missed authentic Vietnamese food. And a visit to Central Michel Richard in D.C.—what a nice restaurant and another sad and untimely death.

Recipe-wise, Steve perfected chowder, making both corn and New England clam varieties. And an impromptu application of Julia Child’s lamb/chicken mustard coating to pork tenderloin yielded terrific results. Also some very satisfying variants on blackened and Cajun chicken and pork bites. And a very nice chopped scallop ramekin treat.

Field trips

Northern trips to Peekskill, Montclair, Paramus, Washington Heights, and Brooklyn—this last through Staten Island, a new adventure. A lovely trip with Sarah to the Philadelphia Zoo, which, although not as vast a zoo as we had hoped—although with an unforgettable view of great cats overhead—yielded a food treasure: John’s roast pork, well worth the wait. A quick trip to Buck’s County to get out the vote, as disappointing as the results. A quick and delightful visit to Arlington for Rick Peabody’s birthday. Two quick day trips to Virginia to visit Steve’s mother in the nursing home: first, for her birthday in January, was a disaster, as we got caught in the freak ice storm and had to spend the night in Oxon Hill; the second, last month, much nicer with side visits to Dr. Witter and Ikea (who would think a trip to a dentist and to, God help us, Potomac Mills, could be fun? but they were!). And both trips featured dinner with old friends Jen and Bob.

We also had a nice share of friends coming to visit us this year: Georgiana and Rick, Rick Peabody, Susan and Mark, Chris and Aimee. All of these visits were a delight, the opportunity to see Asbury through fresh eyes.

We are getting quite adept at navigating the city and successfully (usually) avoiding bad tunnel traffic and snatching up good parking spaces in the East Village. A favorite field trip we’ve done a few times now: Union Square/East Village/Cooper’s Union for brunch/books/movie/farmers market and then home with carryout from Han Dynasty and a shopping trip to Westside Market. In that vein, a very nice movie experience with Sarah at the East Village Cinema to see The Eightful 8, in an old-time theater with balconies and curtains: a lush experience.

The year’s only museum visit was to the Neue Galerie to see a Munch exhibition. A privilege to be in the same room with these paintings.

Of Bridges, Filters, and Focus

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The concept of bridging divides has been much in my mind since the recent election. And yesterday, after the lengthiest exercise I have yet engaged in in trying to bridge divides — specifically, asking my brother- and sister-in-law why they voted as they did and being completely bewildered, bemused, and befuddled by their responses, based as they were in misinformation and utter conviction — I pessimistically decided that the divides are too vast: there are no bridges that can be built and we must just coexist, as Somerset Maugham wrote:

We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them.

But then I had the strangest dream last night. The telephone rang, and it was Ron Bernier, my old friend from college. Ron’s voice was faint but warm, and he had much to tell me. Since Ron has been dead for eight years, this was not surprising: we were trying to bridge the greatest divide there is.

I had trouble understanding what he was saying, but then we realized the problem. All his words contained my conversation in them. So we had to fix a template of these and subtract out my words: what was left was what he was trying to say.

We are pasting up a lot of French and Spanish documents these past several days, using the English as the base and then overlaying with the new language. Sometimes there are parts left over that don’t match up. So I get what reality underlies the dream. And I guess I could chalk up the dream to work overload and the generation of too many instances of using the document compare feature in Word.

Or maybe not. Maybe it’s actually quite a profound message. Maybe we need to stop listening to our own thoughts in the echo chambers of our news streams, our chats with friends; stop assuming we know what is being said to us because it matches up so precisely with the words in our head. Maybe we need to really listen hard, as I had to with Ron, really focus.

Will it help? I don’t know. But it’s all I have right now, so I intend to try to truly listen and to hear, filtering out my own prejudices and seeing what is left…

Let Me Tell You (Shirley Jackson)

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I have had the most pleasant voice in my head for the past couple of weeks — the great writer Shirley Jackson has been spinning tales, doling out advice, and wryly commenting on waffle irons plotting against toasters.

I have loved Shirley Jackson since reading her fantastic story “The Witch” in my childhood, on my father’s advice. I remember that the bio at the top of the story noted that of all the writers featured in this particular horror story anthology, she was the only one who professed to being a practicing witch. That was irresistible enough, but the story — the writing — was staggering. I have written elsewhere of Jackson’s unerring and inimitable ability to shift mood on a dime; that story demonstrates this gift in a single savage sentence.

While Let Me Tell You features no such singular story (which might not be the collection’s fault, so much as the intervening near fifty years on the part of the reader), it leaves an eminently satisfying cumulative effect as the force of its fifty-six essays, lectures, reviews, and short stories sink in, revealing a prodigious and profound talent. In these writings, her wit (“…she got on a commuter train every morning before the weather had rightly settled itself for the day…”) and whimsy (“The green glasses from the five-and-ten love their bath; they roll luxuriously in the soapy water and seem almost to stretch”) are displayed alongside her merciless and unflinching ability to expose and lacerate the pompous, the petty, the predictable:

an inexpensive black pen-and-pencil set, which…had been awarded to Cheryl…by members of her class, whom, as class president, she had inspired to be exactly the same as every other class graduated from that academy.

Taken together, the various pieces form a clear and cohesive whole, both showing and explicating how her keen observational skills were tempered and complemented by her free-flowing imagination.

And there are very strong works in the book, both fiction and nonfiction. These include the very funny “Company for Dinner”; the puckish “The New Maid,” with its whiff of Mary Poppins magic; the plaintively unsettling “Showdown”; the portentous “The Man in the Woods”; the passionate defense of Samuel Richardson in “Notes on an Unfashionable Novelist” (the fulsome opening rhetorical paragraph of which is so brilliantly undercut by the first sentence of the next: a triumph of literary writing); and, my favorite, the nonfiction “Good Old House,” with its uniquely Jacksonian blend of domesticity and implicit dread as she describes life in her haunted house:

Laurie went off pleasantly from the house to nursery school, where he played happily in the yard and through the attics, but there was a corner of the hall where a wolf lived, and he would not go near it alone.

She then tells a tale (true? I hope so) of an old lady who comes to visit one afternoon. It is, like the best Jackson, set firmly on the border between disturbing and reassuring. A similarly off-kilter occurrence is described in “The Ghosts of Loiret,” where Jackson details the postcards of various homes her husband has bought her, and remarks on the people on the balcony of one, who aren’t there the next day. A similar chill goes up the spine in “How I Write,” where she explains just how she got the name for her secondary female character in The Haunting of Hill House.

Delightful as many of the stories were, what I loved best was sharing with her what she loved: books, words, writing. And I loved hearing her talk about these, as here, when she discusses cleaning off her children’s bookshelves of the

adventures of numerous bluebirds, airplanes, toy engines, clowns, rabbits, and walking-talking dolls, all of whom got into trouble by not obeying, or not conforming, or not going to bed on time.

After this purge, “The real books remained, the ones that packed a sense of excitement and enchantment, that were read rather than skimmed…”

Jackson thrived on writing, telling herself stories throughout the day as she cared for house, home, and family — well, in a fashion: “…trying to get the living room looking decent without actually cleaning it…” But all, all, was fodder for the tales she told, for

a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees; always noticing…and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.

And thank heaven she did not. She is a master, and this book a treasure.