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Terror versus Dread

terror
Peter Lorre’s haunted, haunting face in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) captures abject terror.

I had a bad day yesterday. Of course, the immediate rejoinder to that, worldwide, is “who didn’t?” But the rationale for recording this seeming tautology is twofold: (1) as a freelancer, very little of my daily routine (to the extent I have ever had one) has actually changed, other than Sarah coming to us as a very congenial telework refugee from New York, making the relative concept of “bad” the merest flutter on the scale; and (2) it was a bad day, not night.

terror-tooker
George Tooker, The Subway (1950). This is dread more than terror.

When this pandemic ordeal began, our household — probably like millions — manifested individual signs and symptoms of stress: gout, eczema, headaches, tensed backs and jaws, and (me) gallbladder attacks. These were accompanied by frequent and neurotic cross-checks of online Covid-19 symptom lists. I rationalized this as our unconscious minds using familiar pain pathways to register our discomfiture. Register, not resolve.

terror-bosch
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights – Hell (c. 1490–1510). This part of the triptych fairly twitches with terror and dread-inducing images.

For me, the attacks typically came (come? what tense is appropriate to life in suspension?) at night. During the day, when the sun is shining — and it often has, disorientingly clear and brisk days — and there are projects or people or both to fill the time — it is sometimes difficult to remember that everything has changed. Or to summon up the unspoken questions underlying recognition of that change: For how long? and Until when? and Into what?

terror-into the unknown
Afred Kubin, Into the Unknown (1901). Save for the lack of social distancing, that about sums it up.

But the symptoms started to recede for all of us because humans adapt to anything, right?

terror 2
Edvard Munch, Anxiety (1894).

But yesterday, after a week and a half of relative calm filled with delicious and nutritious food, frequent check-ins with family and friends, escapist movies and TV, some client work accomplished in a most satisfying collaboration, a dusting-off of bottom-of-the-inbox categorization projects, and a new equanimity regarding our weekly grocery store runs predicated on my acceptance that this once-pleasurable activity could no longer be a contemplation of the possible but a grim and hurried reality check, I had a quite painful attack that started a couple of hours after breakfast. It came in waves every two hours till dusk. After a nap, some Tylenol, some nausea, and eight and a half miles of walking, it eventually subsided.

It is easy to recognize that discomfort is stress-induced. Duh. But a very insightful conversation with Julie led me deeper.

terror-trent parke-the camera is god
Trent Parke, The Camera Is God (2019).

She urged taking the pain as a signal from inside my psyche, as a barometer that no, things are not all serene in the subconscious, and that that needs to be — if not addressed — then at least acknowledged.

terror-Phantomunmasking
The unmasking from the 1925 Lon Chaney silent film Phantom of the Opera.

Psychologists say that the top five stressors are death of a loved one, divorce, moving, major illness, and job loss. All of these reflect a disruption of the status quo. All animals like the status quo. Our brain is wired to maintenance of the status quo: we are designed to go on autopilot, with only “executive” decisions penetrating to the conscious mind. And this new normal we are in is a huge disruption of the status quo. Uncertainty pervades, and the seamless collaboration between conscious and unconscious minds is wrecked.

terror-meidner
Ludwig Meidner, Apocalyptic Landscape (1913).

So last night, before I was quite asleep, I checked in with my gallbladder, trying to understand what was underneath the attack.

And I felt a wave of emotion in the pit of my stomach, unlike anything I’ve experienced in recent memory — maybe not since I was a child, when things really really scared you because nothing made any sense. What I felt was something wrenchingly horrible and completely without words. Terror? Dread?

Which question took me, with relief, to much more familiar terrain: defining and categorizing.

So I have spent the day, after a fairly restorative (relatively speaking) sleep, pondering the difference between terror and dread, and collecting images that evoke either for me. And I think it comes down to this: dread is when you sense a threat, but you don’t have any clear idea of what precise danger it poses or when it will arrive – only that it’s lurking, and that it is not at all good.

NosferatuShadow
F. W. Murnau, Nosferatu (1922). Dread.

Terror, it seems to me, is when you happen on something completely unnerving. It can be an upsetting image, filled with inexplicable and incomprehensible components that together scream: be afraid, be very afraid.

terror-Oskar Kokoschka Pieta
Oskar Kokoschka, Pietà (Poster for Murderer, Hope of Women) (1909). Terror.
terror - dali- dangerous honey- the enigma of hitler
Salvador Dali, The Enigma of Hitler (1939). Terror.

Or it can be contextualized, but the context defies reason. This clip from David Lynch’s Lost Highway epitomizes that, to me.

It also encapsulates how I felt the first time I read Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Early in City of Glass, the first part of the trilogy, there is this:

Much later, when [Quinn] was able to reconstruct the events of that night, he would remember looking at the clock, seeing that it was past twelve, and wondering why someone should be calling him at that hour. More than likely, he thought, it was bad news. He climbed out of bed, walked naked to the telephone, and picked up the receiver on the second ring.

“Yes?”

There was a long pause on the other end, and for a moment Quinn thought the caller had hung up. Then, as if from a great distance, there came the sound of a voice unlike any he had ever heard…

“Hello?” said the voice.

“Who is this?” asked Quinn.

“Hello?” said the voice again.

“I’m listening,” said Quinn. “Who is this?”

“Is this Paul Auster?” asked the voice. “I would like to speak to Mr. Paul Auster.”

And I flung down the book and tried to sleep, but I had nightmares all night. That was terror: contextualized terror. A context that provides no context, no explanation. And every fiber of my being rebelled against that. And that’s terror.

Welcome to our world.

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Where to?

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
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Of Bridges, Filters, and Focus

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…

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Short Stories I Have Loved

In my life, I have read hundreds upon hundreds of short stories; the bookcase has more than two full shelves of anthologies, and that doesn’t count all those volumes that have been lost to downsizing or generosity over the years. Nor do I count with those the myriad collections I have edited — another full bookshelf or two — because that’s a different kind of reading.

In general, my taste runs to fantasy, horror, and science fiction — although I take pleasure as well in the clean and elegant short stories of Maugham and de Maupassant and the cool visions of Updike and Cheever, among others.

I am currently reading a collection of (mostly) fantasy/horror stories by Michael Marshall Smith. I have read his work for numerous years in various anthologies an51c2bjbl0uol-_sx323_bo1204203200_d have found it haunting. Which made me think about all the stories, my favorite short stories, that have haunted me over the years. These have been culled from books running the gamut from thoughtful and high-toned anthologies, the best of which is 1143Alberto Manguel’s intelligently compiled and beautifully curated Black Water, to lurid-covered trade paperbacks. But these are the stories that have stuck with me.

In the beginning, there was Bradbury. I remember reading him in junior high — maybe even late elementary school — so it is not surprising that three Ray Bradbury stories make the list. And frankly, I didn’t even dare read through the tables of contents in the source books: I knew I’d find dozens more that I had enjoyed. But the rule here is stories I can call up in memory and still be moved by decades later. And that criterion yields “The Last Night of the World” from The Illustrated Man, “I Sing the Body Electric” from the anthology of the same name, and 7345225174_d14127f038_o“Homecoming” in The October Country. These three are quintessential Bradbury — juxtaposing the most aching tenderness against a joltingly weird background. Two people hold hands and dry the dishes, wallpaper is peeled away in an old nursery as siblings reunite, and a mother hushes a misfit child’s unhappiness by promising to tend a grave.

Then comes Harlan Ellison; I have written before of my deep fondness for Ellison’s style and work. And my favorite of all is “The Deathbird.” How can you not love a story that contains a quiz, a series of essay prompts, a short story, and at least two converging time and plot lines? All urging free will and  proclaiming the power of the individual. Heady stuff; but that’s Harlan.

Shirley Jackson’s “The Witch” contains the most breath-taking tonal shift I have ever read, switching from light to blackest dark in the space of six words. Amazing.

Some literary short stories next: Heinrich Böll’s hysterical (in the sense of hysteria, not laughter) “Christmas Every Day” and the cool metafiction “Title” by John Barth. A brief sample from the latter:

In this dehuman, exhausted, ultimate adjective hour, when every humane value has become untenable, and not only love, decency, and beauty but even compassion and intelligibility are no more than one or two subjective complements to complete the sentence…

And through the master anthologist Alberto Manguel, I was introduced to I.A. Ireland’s “Climax for a Ghost Story,” one of the shortest and most effective chillers ever, reprinted here in its entirety (it’s in the public domain):

“How eerie!” said the girl, advancing cautiously. “—And what a heavy door!” She touched it as she spoke and it suddenly swung to with a click.

“Good Lord!” said the man. “I don’t believe there’s a handle inside. Why, you’ve locked us both in!”

“Not both of us. Only one of us,” said the girl, and before his eyes she passed straight through the door, and vanished.

Classic horror. To be joined by Bram Stoker’s “The Squaw,” Stanley Ell138760524in’s “The Specialty of the House,” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In all of these stories, a sense of increasing unease, disease, grows, as the protagonist crosses a line between normal and abnormal. The skill of the authors lies in their ability to, like Jackson, shift tone. However, where she turned 180 degrees in a clause, these stories turn slowly around, subtly ratcheting up the horror quotient as the reader moves imperceptibly from the familiar to the unthinkable. In a similar vein, Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” moves from the familiar to the unthinkable and back again — and then back yet again. All in just over a thousand words.

Next up, a trio of disquieting stories haunted by madness by Kelly Link, Ted Sturgeon, and Frederic Brown: “Stone Animals” (reprinted with permission here), “The Professor’s Teddy Bear,” and “Come and Go Mad,” respectively. In these three, sympathetic protagonists go very awry under the influence of highly unexpected sources. A couple of sentences from Link illustrate the point: “He had an idea that the phone was haunted now. That’s why Catherine wasn’t answering.”

For a great conceit, few stories can top Robert Olen Butler’s “JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction.” The story is excellent and smart, but I do suspect a great deal of its staying power for me lies in that terrific title.

I end the list with some I have come across more recently: “Collect Call,” by Sarah Pinborough, and “Always,” by the above-mentioned Michael Marshall Smith. Interestingly, both of these recall the tender tone of Ray Bradbury. I seem very drawn to stories of dramatic mood shift, but equally so to those whose pervading mood is of loss and love and how you bridge that. The Pinborough and Smith stories, like “Homecoming,” are about undying love and the humble devices they use to convey this love — a pay phone, a package — subvert the eternal enormity of death, much like Emily’s ribbons and bacon in Our Town.

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2015 Round-Up

Books (me)

  • The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743–1933, Amos Elon
  • The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales, Franz Xaver von Schonwerth
  • Available Dark, Elizabeth Hand
  • Tudors, Peter Ackroyd
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris
  • Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable, Steve Volk
  • Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, David K. Randall
  • Drunk Tank Pink and Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, Adam Alter
  • Nothing So Strange, James Hilton
  • The Science of Monsters: The Origins of the Creatures We Love to Fear, Matt Kaplan
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
  • House Party, Patrick Dennis
  • The Third Man, Graham Greene
  • The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
  • The Great Silence, Juliet Nicolson
  • Out of the Ordinary, Jon Ronson
  • The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, Sam Kean

The most important book I read all year was Fringe-ology; all my other reading and a great bit of my thinking since has been colored by this book. It is essentially about keeping your mind open to possibilities, even the unexplainable, seemingly illogical, ones. A fascinating book. And many of my reading choices since were influenced by it. In line with this, Drunk Tank Pink, which explains why we do what we do when we don’t know why we do it (the title refers to the anti-aggressive influence a particular shade of pink has, effectively subduing drunks and criminals, hence its use as the wall color of choice in drunk tanks), was revelatory. Coupled with the information in The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, I came to realize how little of what we do we do consciously, how little we consequently can really say we KNOW. Which of course leads back to Fringe-ology

In fiction, aside from the James Hilton which I wrote about elsewhere (see link above), the Philip Roth was the standout. I did not realize he was such a careful writer. Impressive.

The weakest book was Ackroyd’s Tudors. Apparently constructed from memory, it had no notes, no sources. Very disappointing.

Books (Steve)

  • The Gangs of New York, Herbert Ashby
  • Timbuktu, Paul Auster
  • The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
  • The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien
  • East of Eden, John Steinbeck
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice, James Cain
  • Time and Time Again, James Hilton
  • Showboat, Edna Ferber
  • New York Trilogy, Paul Auster
  • They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Horace McCoy
  • Lives of Poets, E.L. Doctorow
  • Angelica’s Smile, Andrea Camillea
  • Candide, Voltaire
  • The Third Man, Graham Greene
  • Best and Brightest, David Halberstram
  • Being Invisible, Thomas Berger
  • The Gun Seller, Hugh Laurie
  • Out of the Ordinary, Jon Ronson
  • Short Stories, O. Henry
  • The Big Clock, Kenneth Fearing

Favorite was East of Eden and Things They Carried. Short stories and the noirs were also great. Also liked The New York Trilogy. Was reading Doctorow when he died… Found Best and Brightest a little disappointing; dragged on a bit.

Concerts

  • Ellis Paul and Peter Mulvey, Rubin Museum
  • Alan Parsons Live, Paramount, Peekskill
  • Loudon Wainwright, Paramount, Asbury Park
  • Road of Promise (Kurt Weill), Carnegie Hall

Alan Parsons was truly an excellent show — unexpectedly so — and that’s Steve’s judgment and he is not a real fan. Crisp and taut and excellent sound and musician- and showmanship — a treat. Very impressive, and quite a departure from many “old time” rock shows we’ve seen, where half the words are unintelligible, and the audience is constantly on the move for more beer. Beautiful theater too (Paramount Hudson Valley).

We had never been to Carnegie Hall, and felt privileged to attend a rare performance of Kurt Weill’s Road of Promise; I include above a link to my review. Not my favorite Weill music, but oh so lovely to be at Carnegie Hall. Just drinking it in was a joyful experience.

Ellis Paul and Peter Mulvey at the Rubin Museum were a treat and unexpected delight. We did not know either musician, and we did not know the museum. The Rubin features art and culture of the Himalayas; their music series asks the artists to pick an item in the collection for which they feel an affinity. This is then projected as a backdrop during their set. And it did make a difference, infusing and informing the music, adding a layer of meaning and tone. Both musicians were kind of folk-acoustic-blues, difficult to categorize, but lots of meaning and texture in their work, which ranged from solemn to silly, with all shades in between. I was particularly impressed by Mulvey’s first number, which repeated only a few words to tell a moving story of love and loss (a recent live set from Mulvey can be seen here; he also has a lot of videos on Youtube). Paul had a couple of songs that resonated as well, especially “Home.”

Steve saw Loudoun Wainwright here on the Boardwalk, at a very intimate session. It was part of a summer concert series, and the audience got to sit on the stage with the musician, about 200 seats in all. Wainwright is a great storyteller, and it was a delight.

Dance and Theater

The most exhilarating performances, the ones that I think really took you out of yourself and brought you to a place of beauty and awe, were — for me — American in Paris, Bill T. Jones’s Analogy/Dora: Tramontane, and the puppet piece Shank’s Mare at La Mama. These were the most artistically profound and satisfying, soaring and dreamy and delicate and containing moments of glory. (I reviewed American in Paris; link provided above.) Hamilton, while impressive and energized and endlessly entertaining, never touched me emotionally — which saddened me (and I think that was why I never turned in a review, which is unforgivable); I had hoped to be moved as I had with 1776! and Rent. I was moved, as was Steve, by Curious Incident of the Dog; I had thought it was going to be a more impenetrable piece, but it was very accessible and very affirming. The way it which the stage, sound, and lighting design approximated the sensory overload experienced by the autistic hero of the piece was breathtakingly powerful. And its message of tolerance, acceptance, and accommodation was most satisfying and always timely.

Our NY Fringe shows (see my reviews at links indicated above) made for a couple of delightful days in the city. We had no mad rushes or long lag times between shows, which was extremely pleasurable. We also made a nice detour over to the Tenement Museum for nice air conditioning and good book browsing. The shows themselves were a nice mix of serious and silly. The best was Bullet for Unaccompanied Heart, a very beautiful and powerful play.

Of course, best of all was Sarah’s The Death Play, or What Is Brad Doing in the Supply Closet? (Which is available for purchase at Martin’s website, here.)

Steve’s standouts were American in Paris and Hamilton; he really enjoyed  Curious Incident of the Dog as well. (At Hamilton, we both especially enjoyed having attended with John Turturro, who sat a few rows behind us.)

Movies

  • Carol
  • Spotlight
  • Trumbo
  • Bridge of Spies
  • Grandma
  • Crimson Peak
  • Goodnight Mommy
  • Maps to the Stars
  • The Imitation Game
  • Welcome to Me
  • What We Do in the Shadows
  • Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
  • Clouds of Sils Maria
  • I’ll See You in My Dreams
  • Mr. Holmes
  • Phoenix

These are the movies we saw in theaters, which still for us count as the “official” movies. Of these, Bridge of Spies and Spotlight were the Academy Award–type best of the year. Good, serious, well acted, and moral; I lean more toward Bridge of Spies as my favorite, because it took the part of the little people in the face of big events. But Michael Keaton’s performance in Spotlight was amazing. As was Lilly Tomlin’s in Grandma. I didn’t like all the gratuitous aggressiveness in the movie, but I sure liked her and Marcia Gay Harden — and, above all, the movie’s tacit respect for a woman’s right to choose. Crimson Peak, much anticipated by Sarah and me since we love Guillermo del Toro’s work, was lush, lush, lush, redolent with Gothic effects and colors; so rich and delicious, we mightily enjoyed it. Another light pleasure was the quirky What We Do in the Shadows, a very funny vampire mockumentary (trailer here, if you are not familiar). More cerebral and disturbing was Clouds of Sils Maria, a discomfiting movie about aging and acclaim — how implacable is the one and how fickle the other. Truly, I think there were more white knuckles associated with this picture than Crimson Peak.

We consumed many many more movies courtesy of Netflix. Among our rental/streaming highlights for the year were the following. Their tones are wildly divergent. What most share is that they turned out to be unexpected delights, particularly Populaire, Dean Spanley, The Card, and Hector and the Search for Happiness. A few were richly textured, disturbing, and thought provoking, notably It’s Such a Beautiful DayThis Must Be the Place, and Mood Indigo.

  • It’s Such a Beautiful Day
  • Force Majeure
  • 3 Women
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • 360
  • The Card
  • Nightcrawler
  • The Trial
  • Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed
  • Night Train to Lisbon
  • Blancanieves
  • The Babadook
  • Septimo
  • This Must Be the Place
  • Populaire
  • Dean Spanley
  • Hector and the Search for Happiness
  • Coast to Coast
  • Mood Indigo
  • Cinema Paradiso
  • The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears

We found ourselves watching a lot of documentaries; following are some of our favorites from the year, all of which are exceedingly well done and fostered a real appreciation for their subject matter. Standouts for me were the highly intriguing Genius on Hold and The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden. I think I like these best because unlike many of the others, there are mysteries still unplumbed. Many other documentaries “solve” their topic through exhaustive research and analysis; these two left me still intrigued and puzzled. Steve’s favorites were Keith Richards: Under the Influence and Reel Injun.

  • Out of the Clear Blue Sky
  • Salinger
  • Hava Nagila: The Movie
  • History of the Eagles
  • Gasland
  • Radio Unnameable
  • Winnebago Man
  • Casting By
  • The Search for General Tso
  • The Search for Michael Rockefeller
  • Keith Richards: Under the Influence
  • Genius on Hold
  • Reel Injun
  • There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane
  • Iris
  • Listen to Me Marlon
  • The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden

Streaming also brought us some wonderful TV series this year. We fell in love with Foyle’s War and are still under the spell of the glorious Mad Men. HBO’s documentary on Robert Durst was more fascinating and unbelievable than a fiction piece, but we were unsettled by its manipulations, particularly its final twist, which left a sour feeling of being had. Also noteworthy and unmissable was HBO’s Show Me a Hero.

Food

This year’s restaurant find was a new nearby Greek restaurant:  Apella Greek Taverna. A late year discovery for pizza, found purely on a whim — as so many of our best food finds are — was Pacini’s in Red Bank. And a revelation: the Shore doesn’t do romantic. So we are still in search of a special occasion restaurant. But the quest is lots of fun! Farther afield, we discovered Han Dynasty in Union Square; so nice to have exotic, spicy Chinese (nonexistent in our part of Jersey).

Our new cooking discovery was butternut squash soup. So easy and so good; Steve roasts the squash with herbs before pureeing it. Also some apple salad combinations: spinach and apple and beet and apple. And a wonderful chopped scallop and breadcrumb concoction served in a ramekin.

We also perfected two recipes that have eluded us for years: first successfully recreating Zeffirelli’s  veal chop (the key is a bold, but simple, overnight marinade of lemon, wine, olive oil, and paprika). And just last week recreating the old Flagship rum buns. This recipe is lost to time — and apparently to most people’s memories; they seem to think that the D.C. Flagship rum buns were like Hogate’s cinnamon rolls. They were not! They were popover shaped and not rolled at all. So we baked brioche studded with raisins in flower pots and poured rum glaze on top. Pretty damn close, pretty damn close. And fun to do after years of research and reminisces.

Field Trips

Three successful day trips stand out. For Julie’s birthday, we went to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. It’s fascinating and chock full of wonders, like an old Edison film of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and exhibits of movie makeup, scripts, prosthetics, costumes — plus there was a glorious exhibit of Mad Men memorabilia and artifacts. We lingered longly: it was wonderful.

Our most distant field trip was to Peekskill when we went to the Alan Parsons concert in June. A nice little town, a lovely day, TWO used bookstores to browse, a farmers market, a whiff (but no opportunity to taste) of an enticing pizza, beautiful weather… a very very nice day. And beautiful scenery on the drive up and back.

We also visited, at long last, the Philadelphia Zoo in November. It was a beautiful day and a quite nice zoo. Standouts were the roast pork and cheese steak from John’s — another long-promised destination at last achieved — and the tigers pacing above our heads in a unique and unnerving environmental design. Sarah’s favorite, the red panda, was on vacation, which was a disappointment; we’ll try to catch up with the new babies at the Bronx Zoo next year.

Not technically a field trip, but highly satisfying and thrilling, were our several late-night jaunts to the beach to see various meteorological events including the lunar eclipse, the Perseids, and the Orionids. The best was a night in summer on the pier in Ocean Grove, lazily counting some dozen meteors with Danny over the course of a very special hour.

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Why I Will Never Watch the Tony Awards Again

When I was a kid, all the award shows were exciting and sophisticated. But none had the artistic intensity, the style, the glamour, of the Tonys. Live theater is so fleeting, so ephemeral; and to be able to get a glimpse of it—particularly when that might be your only chance to see the shows and their creators—was a privilege and a thrill.

Boris Aronson accepting his umpteenth Tony for set design with a terse “Thanks.” Seasoned first ladies of the theater—Colleen Dewhurst, Julie Harris—with long loose hair, arty clothes, and jewelry the Hollywood set could never carry off, breathlessly, eloquently, feelingly making their speeches. The looks back at Tony wins of previous years: Zero Mostel, Carol Channing, Yul Brynner, Ethel Merman, Gwen Verdon. The exciting performances from the year’s best musicals; the power and thunder of the year’s best dramas.

Over the years, as tastes and styles and economics have changed—and as I have become more aware of and grateful for the theater magic that is created in indie theater off Broadway—my interest in the Tony awards has diminished. But still, we have watched the show, even when glamour turned to glitz, when wit became witless, when the sweeping theatricality of the evening’s presenters and awardees was homogenized and dumbed down to blandness at best, crassness at worst.

But it hit an all-time and, to my mind, unforgivable low last night. The lack of respect for artists and artistry was evident in every choice the show made. Awards given during commercial breaks. Elder statesmen like Tommy Tune shunted to the side.

All award shows these days have the flavor of a roast; we are apparently embarrassed to praise but we do love to skewer. But when the show devoted several minutes to a memorium segment featuring Josh Groban and a chorus of, well, everyone, singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as the names of the recently departed were swiftly (and often illegibly) flashed on a backdrop, all I could think of was Margo Channing’s line about detesting cheap sentiment. Wailing over the dead and gone while literally pushing the living off the stage, denying them their moment. Ah well, I guess when they’re dead, everybody will sing and look mournful for them then.

Theater is a hard business. I know this because I know many people who work in the theater, including both my children. And people come to New York to try to break into the New York theater scene, which for most still means Broadway. And all these talented, visionary, artistic people were told by Broadway’s big night of self-congratulation that their gifts are not valued, not in the least. And that’s why I won’t watch the Tonys again: I don’t watch a show with no heart, a show that disrespects its subject and disparages its audience.

Uncategorized

2014 Roundup

Books (me)

  • Oz Reimagined: New Tales from the Emerald City and Beyond, John Joseph Adamds and Douglas Cohen, eds.
  • Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History, Simon Winder
  • Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf
  • Halfway House, Ellery Queen
  • Big Money, P. G. Wodehouse
  • The Red Notebook, Paul Auster
  • And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning, Joel M. Hoffman
  • The Sundial, Shirley Jackson
  • The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film, Jeffrey Couchman
  • How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, Elijah Wald
  • We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver

Summary: Not a great reading year; I even had a two- or three- month period where I read nothing at all before bed—just burned out, I guess. (In addition to several policy and annual reports, I copyedited three poetry anthologies, one 464-page issue of Gargoyle magazine, the 460-page novel Roughnecks, and the 100,000-word Rutgers 250th anniversary volume.) The nonfiction I did read was uniformly fascinating: Germania has a delicious tone, presenting much scholarship most lightly and delightfully. And God Said is a wise book, clearly demonstrating the perils of taking anything literally in the Bible, given the huge gap in language and culture that separates us from then. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll has far too subversive a title; it is a sober, fascinating study of popular music, concluding that the current methods of creating and marketing pop music mitigate against the commingling of artistic styles that characterized earlier eras—another way in which our society is becoming increasingly fragmented and segmented. And the The Night of the Hunter is terrific. In fiction, the standout was the tiny Paul Auster book. The Shirley Jackson was something of a disappointment: her tone was there, but it did not work in concert with the story. Lionel Shriver is an excellent author; I will look to read more of her, and I plan to post separately about Kevin.

Books (Steve)

  • The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
  • A Most Wanted Man, John Le Carre
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Le Carre
  • Where I’m Calling From, Raymond Carver
  • The Red Notebook, Paul Auster
  • The Brooklyn Follies, Paul Auster
  • The Houdini Specter, Daniel Stashower
  • Our House in the Last World, Oscar Hijuelos
  • Play Pretty Blues: The Life of Robert Johnson, Snowden Wright
  • Had a Good Time, Robert Olen Butler
  • Halfway House, Ellery Queen
  • The Beautiful Cigar Girl, Daniel Stashower
  • The Teapot Dome Scandal, Laton McCartney
  • Who the Fuck Is Linda Chorney?, Linda Chorney

Summary: Steve read a wide variety of books, many outside his usual norm, including The Sound and the Fury, which he still is working to understand. He really, really enjoyed Paul Auster.

Dance and Concerts

  • Healing Wars, Liz Lerman
  • Willie Porter at the Saint
  • Steve Forbert at Woodbridge Middle School

Summary: All of these were most enjoyable. Willie Porter was a pleasant surprise: very energetic, very skilled, very talented. The Lerman piece was thought provoking and in places profound. However, I am not sure the combination of speech and dance always worked: the dance and music put you someplace ethereal, heightened your thoughts and sensibilities; the words tended to bring it all down, earthbound and moribund. And Steve Forbert is always a delight, particularly in a small, attentive venue. We had been very very disappointed when we saw him at Tim McLoone’s Supper Club, where a raucous party ruined the performance. This appearance at the middle school more than compensated.

Theater

Summary: I reviewed several of these this year; I have provided links where available, and will post the others elsewhere. The last four listed here are productions by my girls: Julie’s theater company, No. 11 Productions, puts on Mythunderstood as a primer on Greek mythology for elementary school students; Friends Call Me Albert, about Einstein and featuring puppets, is in development. Sarah wrote Limbo Land and Master Matthew. I cannot pretend to be objective; they were all wonderful. It’s hard to pick a standout from among the other plays. The Broadway and off-Broadway shows were all well produced and entertaining on the whole, but not superlative. Of the indie and Fringe productions, I was most taken by The Pink Unicorn, which is about a small-town, conservative Texas mother coming to terms with her teenage daughter’s “gender queer” status. It is funny and heartfelt and compassionate and should be required viewing for everyone as a lesson in tolerance and acceptance and love. Read more about it (or buy it) here.

Movies

  • Monuments Men
  • Love Is Strange
  • A Trip
  • Boyhood
  • Words and Pictures
  • Ida
  • About Time
  • Lunch Box
  • Kill Your Darlings
  • Oscar Nominated Live Action and Animated Shorts
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Philomena
  • Nymphomaniac Vol. 1
  • Magic in the Moonlight
  • Dance of Reality
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Finding Vivian Maier
  • Chef
  • Fading Gigolo
  • A Hard Day’s Night
  • The One I Love
  • Enemy
  • Venus in Furs
  • Like Father, Like Son
  • Two Faces of January
  • The Zero Theorem
  • Pride
  • Gone Girl
  • St. Vincent
  • Birdman
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Whiplash
  • Foxcatcher

Summary: Steve’s top picks are Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman, and Boyhood, all of which he found to be thought provoking and thoroughly entertaining. My top picks are Grand Budapest Hotel, Pride, and Dance of Reality. I have never seen a movie like that last: crazy, wild, erotic, erratic, indelible, gorgeous, horrifying, fascinating. I loved it. I also loved Pride, which to me was the year’s best in terms of conscience, heart, and soul: positive and life-affirming. But I agree with Steve in picking Grand Budapest as best all-around good movie. It creates a wonderful little world, and I did not want to leave it: I loved its details and its tone and its look and its people. An utter delight with no false notes. Looks like we only saw one documentary this year: Finding Vivien Maier; it was spellbinding. Most disappointing films were Monuments Men, which I thought was hypocritical; St. Vincent, which was an extended Bill Murray SNL sketch and without any heart; Inside Llewyn Davis, which was very flat and uninteresting for a Coen brothers flick we’d been looking forward to; and Gone Girl, which was just not twisty enough! Intriguing also-rans: Chef, Fading Gigolo, Lunch Box, and Nymphomaniac, all of which greatly exceeded our expectations. Two Faces of January was forgettable; of all the movies listed, we couldn’t even remember what this one was about without checking online.

 

Food

One exceedingly lovely new restaurant (new to us): the Ragin’ Cajun in Belmar. A thoroughly unpretentious, friendly, tiny, happy place. Other places we tried and especially liked this year were Pho Le in Red Bank and Ming in Edison.

Our shopping find came late in the year, when we were searching for a fresh turkey in late December. The Long Branch Poultry Farm provided a most excellent turkey—possibly the best we’ve ever had—for a most excellent price.

As to new recipes, the big find was lentils. Steve created a lovely lentil side dish lightly sauteed with onions, carrots, and garlic: very easy and an excellent accompaniment to almost anything.

Field Trips

Very few field trips this year beyond numerous trips to the city and a few to Rutgers. We did go to the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton in time for the Seward Johnson retrospective, which was great fun. And we went to the Neue for the Degenerate Art exhibit. And the Magritte exhibit at MoMA, which was just terrific: funny and perverse and wild.

And another late year find: a field trip for office furniture on December 31 brought us to E. J. Schuster Furniture, quite the nicest furniture store imaginable. We got two new chairs, had a most knowledgeable and friendly salesman, and learned about the store’s history, as it is also the site of Schuster’s Poultry Farm, a local egg producer.