Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lost and found

Do you remember who first sucked you into a love for learning? That person who first taught you about the Renaissance or Rasputin or Emma Lazarus' words on the Statue of Liberty? Sometimes a teacher makes such an impact on your life that you have to hunt her (or him) down years later just to say "Thank you." Fourteen years ago - back before Google and Facebook - I managed to track down my 6th grade teacher (Barger Elementary, Chattanooga, TN) to tell her just that.

Miss Rushlow was the first "young" teacher I ever had. I'd love to say that didn't make a difference, but it did. It makes an enormous difference to 11-year-olds. In other words, she had our attention from the git-go. She was tough. She expected a lot out of us, and we produced. We bugged her to death, I'm sure, with our silliness, but she knew how to control a classroom, so nothing ever got too out of hand. As I said, she had us from the git-go.

Well, in the mid-1990s. tracking someone down after 30+ years was kind of tricky. No Google. Shoot, hardly any "world wide web." And it's always harder finding a woman who has since married and changed her name. Sigh.

I won't bore you with the details, but finding her involved a trip to hometown Chattanooga's library, old newspapers, obits and wedding announcements, and phonebooks on discs. Found her. Well, found her husband. Wrote a long letter, included a copy of our class picture, sent it FedEx, and waited to see if she was still out there.

She was. In California. Still teaching. We wrote back and forth, sent emails, talked on the phone. Fortunately, my job at Turner Broadcasting involved a bit of travel, so on a business trip to California, I stayed a few extra days and got to see Miss Rushlow (now Mrs. Maxwell) for the first time in, well, decades.

Really long story a bit shorter, our families became good friends - her husband, son, sister and my daughter, sister, aunt - very quickly. So fourteen years later and after many trips to California and Georgia, I am about to welcome my 6th grade teacher to New York. Her son Bruce is giving a concert at Carnegie Hall tomorrow evening. The family's staying through the weekend, so I'll be New York Tour Guide again.

Now we'll actually see the Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty - something I first learned from Miss Rushlow all those years ago in a classroom in Chattanooga, Tennessee. We have a busy four days planned, and I'll keep you posted on the fun.

I highly recommend tracking down that special teacher, if you can, and saying "Thanks." Hey, you might just end up on a wine tour of Central California or going to a concert at Carnegie Hall with her. Now, if we can just find a play about Rasputin . . .

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Of flu and flyovers

The threats of pandemics and terrorist attacks certainly add excitement to hum-drum economic meltdowns and massive job losses. I was getting bored with those. Folks need a new catastrophe now and then to add a little spice to everyday drudgery.

New Yorkers don't seem all that frightened about swine flu, at least not this day, this hour. Even though NYC boasts more cases than any other city. Woo-hoo! Go New York!

One or two people are walking around with face masks, which, by the way, medical experts say don't do much to ward off the flying pig virus. I suspect more people are stocking up on soap and hand sanitizer, and I hope more are covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze, but beyond that I haven't noticed any panicked subway riders. However, this nonchalance may turn ugly at any moment. Never can tell.

Low flying aircraft over Lower Manhattan are another matter. It was uncommonly stupid and irresponsible to swoop so close to densely-populated skyscrapers in a city that survived the 9/11 attacks. Many have experience in getting wrong information, or right information too late, to stick around and see who might be flying incoming jets. You can hardly blame them for evacuating their buildings yesterday when a 747 and a couple of fighter jets appeared to head straight for them.

'Fraidy cats? Hardly. No one, NO ONE, should be flying planes so close to Manhattan. You'd better have a damn good reason to do that, and "photo op" ain't one of 'em. Let them head for the buildings of the folks calling New Yorkers panicky, just to see if they stick around to see who might be buzzing their office.

Still, it's a beautiful day in here in the City. Flowers and trees a-bloom. Breezy. I'll not worry about a pig-type flu or insanely close aircraft today.

Tomorrow, now, may be a different matter.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The play's the thing

I celebrated my birthday on Tuesday at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre and the Moises Kaufman play "33 Variations." With Jane Fonda. I loved the play, by the way, even in the face of reviews that called it so-so - though Fonda received accodades for her performance across the board.

More about the play and Fonda's performance later.

A friend asked me if I was going to the play alone. When I answered "Yes," I got the standard "Oh, too bad!" pity-look. That's OK. I'm used to it. But the thing is, I prefer going to plays and movies alone. And, no, I doth not protest too much.

First, a singleton gets a much better seat. I usually decide to go to the theatre at the last minute, and single seats - I mean really great seats - are all that's left. I was dead-center, orchestra - well, closer to the stage than the rear, so even better - for "33 Variations." Last year for "The Year of Magical Thinking" with Vanessa Redgrave? Fourth row, center aisle. Happens all the time for me.

So going it alone pays off. Try getting two or three seats together within a few days of a performance, and chances are that you won't have orchestra or front mezz seats unless you pay a huge premium. My advice - split up and go for the great single seats.

Second, I go to a play or a movie to, er, watch the play or the movie. Crazy, I know. Once those lights go down, I expect to be transported to another place, another experience. I do not require a buddy to make that happen for me. In fact, if I'm with someone, I tend to spend time wondering if he/she is enjoying the show. Yeah, that's a pathology, I realize, but I feel responsible somehow for my buddy's play-going experience. That pulls me away from losing myself in what's going on up on the stage.

Now, I do love discussing a play or a movie afterward, getting other reactions and opinions. Talking about a performance experience is a big part of the fun. But during the play/film? Nope, don't want to know what you're thinking. I'll get back to ya' on that.

So don't cry for me, Argentina, about going to a play alone. I got a better seat and lost myself in the experience. We'll talk later.

Back to "33 Variations." I was totally caught up in the themes of creative and academic process. - not the only themes in the play, but the ones that spoke to me. I never found it slow or plodding, as some have criticized. And Fonda was outstanding. Her character, Katherine Brandt, maintained her spirit and passion, all the while succumbing to Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS). The rest of the cast was strong, too, so the time flew for me.

For me, the play's the thing. Not who's sitting next to me.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Birthday Cake

Back in the olden days, mothers used to actually bake birthday cakes. It had nothing to do with whether or not she worked outside the home (as mine did), birthday cakes were made by yo' mama. No quick trip to Publix (great cakes, BTW) or Baskin-Robbins. Nope. Whipped it up in the kitchen, where you could lick the bowl of your very own birthday cake batter.

Since my birthday usually falls close to Easter, Mother had a special cake she baked for me - a coconut cake, complete with green coconut "grass" and jelly bean "Easter eggs" hidden in the grass. Candles were spaced amongst the jelly beans, making for a very festive birthday cake. No need for "Happy Birthday" scrawled out in icing. The coconut grass, jelly bean eggs, and candles said it all.

I honestly don't remember how many cakes I baked for daughter Kate's birthdays over the years. I'm not a very good baker - though Mother was no expert, either, so that's a lousy excuse. No, I relied on bakeries and grocery stores. I do wonder where Mother found the time to create her coconut confection every year, but she managed. (Plus, a German chocolate cake around Christmastime - she was excellent at German chocolate.) Coconut cake with jelly beans and candles always made it Happy Birthday.

Thank you, Mother, for the great birthday cakes and happy memories. I'll be thinking of you at 10:12 tonight and the gift of life you gave me 58 years ago.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Thinking Place

Growing up, we had a swing in a big tree in the backyard. I don't remember when Daddy strung it up with rope and a sturdy wooden seat, but very early on it became the best place I could find to do my serious thinking.

This Thinking Place was a real lifesaver from the time I was maybe 10 to 14-years-old. There seemed to be a lot to sort out during those years, and mindless swinging under a big old tree helped clarify things.

The knottiest problems couldn't be "swung out," though. They had to be twisted out - sitting in the swing and twisting round and round until it couldn't twist any more, then letting it untwist until I was dizzy. Things were clearer after a good "twist."

I wish I could find a good grown-up Thinking Place, some place that could work as well as our backyard swing all those years ago. The size of the problems are relative - a big problem at 12 is just as enormous as a big problem at 58. The difference is that I don't have any place to twist those problems up and dizzy them out again.

A good Thinking Place is hard to find these days.

Unplugging the stress machine

Last week I decided to slip out of New York, suitcase full of books and heart full of hope that I could unplug from my everyday life for a few days.

It was the first real vacation I’d had in almost three years. Yes, I’ve had time off, but it was devoted to weddings or playing Hostess with the Mostest to a variety of visitors. All were wonderful, fun experiences, but none of them provided the opportunity to just “be,” without demands or expectations.

So I boarded the train for Schenectady, watched the Hudson River pass by my window, and started to breathe in a different way. By the time I’d made my way to Wyndbourne (thanks for picking me up, Nancy), a bed and breakfast in Galway, I knew I’d chosen the right way to unwind.

I was the only guest at the 1790’s farmhouse. Two libraries, the fireplace reading areas, front porch, bathrooms, wooded acreage – all to myself! Wyndbourne doesn’t have wifi, and I never went near the one television downstairs, so I really did “unplug” the whole time I was there. Nancy and Ralph kept me well-fed and gave me access to the kettle, stove, and a huge collection of tea, so I never went hungry (or un-tea’d). A comfortable bed with flannel sheets, feather pillows, and a down comforter ensured solid sleep. In short, all things came together, including the weather, which was beautiful the whole time.

And how did I spend my days? Reading, reading, reading. I ambitiously packed five books and finished three. I moved around from front porch to kitchen fireplace area to upstairs library – always with a cup of tea steaming next to me – to enjoy all the comfort zones the Wyndbourne offered. I never missed TV or the internet. I just disappeared into the books.

But once in a while I needed to get out and stretch my legs. Nancy had gotten permission for me to have access to the neighbors’ woods, so I had a lovely place to tramp around and explore. The air was fresh and the walks invigorating, which cleared my mind for more reading!

The only time I left the B&B was for a trip into Saratoga Springs, where we explored Lyrical Ballad Bookstore for over an hour, had a great pub burger, and toured the town. (Yes, I saw the racetrack.) A lovely town, plus two more books (thanks, Lyrical) – not a bad morning’s work!

Saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker (true!), geese, ducks, chipmunks, and lots of stars at night. Read three books. Drank lots of tea and some excellent wine. Lots of good food. No TV. No internet. No phone calls. Slowly the gray matter started regenerating and the heart rate slowing down.

My advice: Unplug. Read. Walk in the woods. Watch a yellow-bellied sapsucker through binoculars. Get back to yourself.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Dante at the Cathedral

I spent the waning hours of Maundy Thursday in Hell. To be more specific, in Dante's Inferno.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine played host to its 16th annual reading of Dante's Inferno by poets, writers, and Dante translators from 9pm to just after midnight on Maundy Thursday, significant because that's when the poem takes place. I hadn't been in the Cathedral since the summer, so seeing the results of the 7-year renovation of the massive 248-foot long, 124-foot high nave was a breathtaking experience in itself. It was the perfect environment to accompany Dante Alighieri and poet Vigil through Hell.

Incense still hung in the air from the Maundy Thursday service and the stripping of the altar. Cathedrals can be spooky, even in broad daylight, but this night - with the crosses covered and no glint of brass, gold, or silver to catch what tiny bit of light might be there - was eerier than usual. More than a hundred people, by my estimate, started the journey with Dante, though fewer stayed to the glorious end.

Of course, three hours is not enough time to read all 34 cantos. Fifteen of them were selected and read by folks who seemed to know their Infernos. Most readers were published poets and New Yorkers, with the occasional outsider from Boston or Atlanta cropping up. A variety of professions were represented, including university professor, architect, film agent, musician, local tour guide, and pharmaceutical executive.

Most of the cantos were long enough to require two readers, each taking half. This gave two voices, two expressive interpretations to a single segment. One canto was read entirely in the original Italian. The first half of Canto XXXIV was read in English, the end in Italian. Very powerful. Since there are innumerable English translations of Dante's work, the readers were free to choose their particular version, announcing it before they read ("I'm reading the first half of Canto XXII using the Longfellow - or Palma, or whoever - translation.")

The story stands on its own. The poetry infuses it with meter and images that bring it to life. And, shoot, any time somebody wants to read to me, I am a willing audience. I just wish I'd had my pillow and blankie (those chairs are hard and that cathedral is cold). It's easy to get caught up in the story and language, so it didn't seem like a 3-hour event to me.

After the last canto was read, the Great Organ let loose with an organ meditation that included bits of "O Sacred Head Sore Wounded." It started very quietly, then built to such crescendo that my heart was racing and the stone floors vibrating. When the music stopped I felt as though I'd been given a deep-tissue massage, all my muscles relaxed and stress relieved. Amazing!

Was it a nontraditional way to mark Maundy Thursday? I think not. Though I had participated in a Maundy Thursday Eucharist earlier in the day and had caught the end of the service at the Cathedral, this reading of Dante's Inferno opened me up to new ways of experiencing the back end of Holy Week.

That's what great art, divinely inspired, does.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Most Dangerous Spot in SoHo

Many people might guess Balthazar's (Second Most Dangerous Spot in SoHo). But for a book-lover? Alarms and sirens should go off in the vicinity of 126 Crosby Street.

How in the world has it taken me so long to discover Housing Works Bookstore Cafe ? I have been in search of a comfortable, welcoming, well-stocked second-hand bookstore since moving to New York three years ago. Bring up "second-hand bookstore" and everyone shouts "Strand!" Well, yuck. I hate Strand. It's crowded, disorganized, and has the surliest employees on the planet. Ah, but Housing Works - yes!

Housing Works is comfortable and well-organized, plus friendly volunteers are there to assist. It reminds me of one of my favorite specialty bookstores, Partners & Crime in Greenwich Village (not a second-hand shop - but, lovely and comfy). Not only does Housing Works have a fabulous range of fiction, non-fiction, art books, music, and movies, 100% - yes, so they say, 100% - of the profits go to Housing Works, Inc. supporting people living with HIV/AIDS and homelessness.

Today I hit the jackpot. All books, music, and movies were 30% off. I needed to stock up for my upcoming R&R in upstate NY the week after Easter, and I'm on a tiny, teeny budget. Please. Like a bandit, I made out. Ten - yes, 10 - great books, $22.00, including two hardbacks (a volume of JM Barrie plays and a really wacky short-story collection) and eight trade paperbacks. All fine stuff. I'm particularly excited that I discovered a Josephine Tey I'd never read. How did that happen? Anyway, the loot is so fabulous that I just don't know where to begin.

I did not sample the "cafe" portion of the bookstore, as I'd grabbed a ginger-citrus hot tea at Balthazar's before storming the doors of Housing Works at noon (opening time on Saturday), but I suspect it's as fine as the book-selling aspect of the establishment. Next time, maybe, though I hate wasting time eating and drinking when there are so many books to explore.

Book-lovers, stay away. You will not be able to resist all those rascally little manuscripts grabbing at your sleeve, crying "Try me! Choose me!" Scary. Treacherous. You have been warned. And if you travel the #6 line, as I do, it's even more dangerous. Exit SW Lafayette at the Bleeker Street station, hang a left just past the BP station onto brick-paved Crosby Street, and there you are. Terrifyingly easy.

Protect yourself. Come armed with a sturdy tote bag. Fair warning.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Eau de Elevator

Love my apartment building. Love my very understanding landlords. But lately, one of the landlords has taken to filling the hallways and elevator with air freshener spray. And I do mean filling, as in causing such a big white cloud of spray that it makes it hard to see through the fog.

I don't recall the building smelling bad before - and I have one sensitive smeller, I tell you - so I don't know what has prompted the daily fog of perfume. Make that two, three times a day. And it's the kind of air spray that triggers other toilet smells as well, if you get my - cough, cough - drift.

It's particularly hard to make it down or up five floors in an elevator saturated with your standard air freshener. One breath and coughing spasms start, eyes water. Same with the outer vestibule where we pick up our mail. Quick! Hold breath, insert mailbox key, fumble with mail, re-lock mailbox, open inside door. Breathe. See? Why, I can feel my lungs contract just thinking about it!

Anyway, I hope with Spring on the way that my landlords will just open the hallway windows and let God take care of airing out the place. I don't know how much more air freshener I can ingest before heading for the ER.