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Saturday, October 31, 2009

This Was It

He was an extraordinary performer, a child prodigy grown to middle age, a transformative pop culture figure who died too young. Like most of us, he was compelled to examine his legacy, and Michael Jackson did it in public with This Is It, the farewell tour concert that he didn't complete. Luckily, there was 100 hours of footage of the rehearsals, and luckily for all of us that footage has been edited and put together into a riveting film that celebrates the life of the enigmatic genius that the eternal boy had become. We see him in rehearsal, holding back a little ("I have to conserve my voice..."), being coddled and revered ("Hold the rail, Michael!" as he's being introduced to the cherrypicker), being the exacting artist and director, and then, best of all, performing. There are charming notes as when they are discussing movements with him and he says, "That's the one the stewardesses do--I love that one, I absolutely love that one!", and that ride in the cherry-picker when he's carefully told, "This is the medium one, you'll be going much higher," and he responds quietly, "You know not to say that to me."

In the film we see a magnificent performer, the consummate professional, working carefully to perfect the show that is never to be. There is something inherently tragic at the same time that the movie is triumphant: Michael Jackson onstage is all that he was ever portrayed to be, and more. He is gentle and tentative offstage as he is commanding, powerful and exciting onstage. I was in a theater with about 25 other people, scattered about all through the house, and there was spontaneous applause at many times during the show. Sometimes we made inadvertantant noises--groans, hoots, and sighs. I left the theatre behind two overweight young black women, and I heard one remark to the other, "I wish I had at least met him."

I actually did meet Michael Jackson once. It was after his Jackson Five days but years before Thriller. He sported a big Afro and wore a denim leisure suit. We were at a performance by The Dance Theatre of Harlem, and he was literally hanging back against a wall at intermission. I took the program over to him and he autographed it to my daughter. He spoke very softly and seemed almost embarrassed to be asked for his autograph. I am thrilled to think of that evening now, and to know that I still own that program.

It's hard to think of what the intervening years did to him, but there he is for all to see in This Is It, busting dance moves that he invented and that caused Fred Astaire to call him "the greatest dancer of the century." He was more than a phenomenon. He literally changed the world of dance and turned the world into dancers. He will never leave us, yet he left us cruelly too soon.

If you don't believe me, go see the movie.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Second Street Stop

My picture of autumn coming to Hoboken prompted a question from Italian Connie, who grew up in Hoboken in the 1950's and now lives in Florida. She hadn't heard about the New Jersey Light Rail train, with its stops at Hoboken Terminal, Second St. and Ninth St. That's it above, over on the tracks right against the cliff at Hoboken's west border.
I've found the little trains very convenient to my new home. Smooth, sleek and clean, they seem to take no time to reach their destinations. In pleasant weather, when one is not in a particular hurry it's possible actually to enjoy the wait before a train arrives to spirit you to the Pavonia Newport Mall in Jersey City or the 12-minute ride to the Hoboken terminal to get to a PATH train to the city.

Passing time in my wait, I have noticed etched in the glass blocks, little snippets of poetry. One day in a rather long wait I read the whole wall, all of a piece, and discovered it was commissioned as a public poetry project by the New Jersey Transit Commission's arts committee. It was written by Marina Temkina, and is available in a book published by Ugly Duckling Press.

Reading the poem while waiting for a train on a beautiful day is a soothing experience, rather like absorbing the affirmations you write to yourself, or reading love notes from a new partner. I'm pleased to live where something like this just seems to appear, for no reason other than to brighten my day.

I hope it does the same for yours.

You Are My Solar Battery

Are you waiting for a train?
Take a minute-long vacation

You’re a part of the solar system
Recharge your batteries

You are a part of the universe
Of people navigating the earth

Sun makes us global
Planets and people commute

Look at the stars
They don’t have
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In a spaceship you’re about to get in
Look up at earth
People are your constellations

The time’s coming when somebody over there,
In the universe, will be looking at you

What is the position of the planet earth
When the Milky Way is parallel
To the Hudson River?

When coming and leaving
Notice this poem moving down the track
To greet you

The old moon
The new moon
The growing moon
The half-moon
Commuting moon

Are you a local traveler? Global? Local? Universal?
A dream traveler?—me too

I am one of you: speeding in life,
Sometimes wishing to stop, to change,
To go on slowly

Sky, the shrine of all faiths,
Meditates on peace and love,
On your heavenly body

Commuting between lines of this poem
Sometimes takes a long time

You’re at the Second Street stop,
Between the hill and the river,
Under the stars’ scattered sugar

My desires, like stars,
Are big and small

You’re my solar battery
You’re my sugar cloud
You’re my living psalm

You’re my rising sun
You’re my green tree
You’re my country

You’re my snow, my rain,
You’re my train,
My early morning, my long day

The punctuation (and lack of it), the choice of images, the gentle rhythms of this poem seem to take us on a ride, help us through the stress of everyday business--and promise a nice trip. I like it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tour of My New Apartment

Just what you've been waiting for: video

Friday, October 16, 2009

Wife Swap and Balloon Madness

I got hooked on Wife Swap long after its original incarnation in the UK. (I admit I never knew of its origins until it was on ABC last year, and never watched it until it appeared on cable during the day. The concept of swapping wives confused me and I didn't find it interesting until I saw the way it worked.)

Long-story-short: Once I understood that families were chosen for their contrast and the mothers each spent two weeks with the other family, usually hoping to educate and reform the home into which they were placed, I was curious. Not that I would consider this show remotely related to reality, it bought home to me that there is a very wide range of behavior that fits in the realm of normal. The traded wife is required to follow the "rules" of the family as outlined for her in a notebook by the real wife for the first week, and the second week she imposes her rules on her "new" family. Almost always the first reaction of the wife upon reading her instructions is the same, "These people are insane!"

I watch Wife Swap from time to time, and did indeed view the episode featuring the Heene family whose lost balloon caused such a sensation yesterday.

The show brings us families of clowns, families of magicians, families who worship pagan gods--always pairing them with overachieving sports and academic type families, or obsessive families pursuing what they think is the American dream. It is always a wake-up call for both houses, particularly the husbands. When I saw the Heene family all I really remember is thinking, "Storm chasers? Who the hell chases storms?" On the other hand, they were far from the most unusual family I'd seen in the mix. I wish I'd been paying more attention.

I'm sure the Heene episode will get more play now that they have had the drama of the lost weather balloon or whatever it was. The nation watched in fear that one of the Heene children (a boy with the new-age name of Falcon) might be in the balloon or, worse, might have fallen from it in a horrendous accident. As it turned out, we are all relieved and now more than a little interested in what makes this particular family unit function.

For a total escape from your mundane reality, I recommend catching Wife Swap sometime around noon on cable. You never know what will turn up.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Seen in Hoboken: Autumn

I happened to have the camera with me the other day when walking toward the Light Rail. The trees are not in full fall fury yet, but there are a few here and there that are turning. Old b-n-r's who don't live in Hoboken any more will be amazed at where I took this picture: The corner of Second and Jackson streets. All new buildings, and many new trees since the old days, eh?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Retirement Plan: Read Some Books

I can hardly remember when I wasn’t retired. My career as a paid public relations executive came to an end in 1988 when I moved from New York to my hometown of Fairhope, Alabama, at the time of my husband’s retirement from the E.I.Du Pont De Nemours company.

We had enough in his retirement package for me to go from full-time work to whatever I wanted to do. What I wanted to do was begin a professional theatre company in conjunction with Actors’ Equity Association, the actors’ union, and I did that. I launched the venture with some money I got from a real estate sale—planning a big party at Grand Hotel, with a dance band and scenes from plays we might be doing in our first season.

Jubilee Fish Theatre ran for about seven years, and then I decided to retire. The trouble with doing work you love is that you never get a day off—and I still was pouring my own money into the theatre. So after seven seasons I pulled the trigger and shut it down.

I had some free time at last, and had long before vowed if I ever did have time on my hands I’d start reading all the great books I’d missed in my life. I had quite a backlog, and wanted to give the classics a shot—so I started with Don Quixote. It was a tough slog, but I knew if I were to make good on my lifelong promise to myself, I must finish it.

I found much delightful in this heavy, deep tome, and many surprises. The characters leapt off the dusty pages and embraced me. I absolutely fell for Sancho Panza, the well-intentioned sidekick who was promised his own island when the Don found his fortune, but instead his adventures tended to involve such activities as being tossed in a blanket in a scruffy inn in the middle of nowhere—a humiliation that would haunt him forever. As I read, I discovered the Don to be not a noble seeker of truth so much as a violent old loon, tilting at windmills because of his illusion that they were monsters. I learned much from reading this book from beginning to end, and one of the things I learned was that most people haven’t read it. I try not to call their attention to that when discussing the book with them.

My sister, an avid and omniverous reader of the classics, suggested I go to Great Expectations next. She said early in life she had been advised to read the best works of a great writer first, and then you’ll be hooked and read his or her whole oeuvre. I loved Great Expectations, but aside from A Christmas Carol, I haven’t read more of Dickens.

I went forward to Edith Wharton. I bought a wonderful collection of her stories, introduced exquisitely by Gore Vidal. In his ruminations about the redoubtable Mrs. Wharton, he wrote, “I can only say that I envy anyone reading for the first time The Age of Innocence…” and I felt he wrote those words for me. Imagine--being envied by Gore Vidal. I was transfixed by The Age of Innocence, and the “Old New York” stories. The only one I didn’t read was Ethan Frome, the one required high school book that is outside the main drift of Wharton anyway. I still may get to it. I do know the story; I’ve seen dramatizations.

I will say here that one of the advantages to reading at advanced age is that so many people read so much when they are far too young to understand it. The American educational system operates on the misguided notion that the quantity of books one reads is an indication of one’s intelligence. I can see no reason, for example, to force The Catcher in the Rye on pre-teenagers, as is done in so many schools nowadays. It is a book about an adolescent identity crisis and can only be grasped by those who have that behind them. When I was in college, this book was presented as a radical alternative selection by an English teacher, and he was much maligned by his superiors for introducing it to us innocents in those days. Where my friends and I devoured it, I cannot imagine that even a few years earlier it would have made any sense to us at all.

What of all the book clubs? They proliferate in my town. There are literally dozens of them, some theme-based, some eclectic—but they did not approach reading the way that I wanted to at that point. I had lost time to make up, and except for an occasional diversion, I was not going to be sidetracked into reading something as a social activity. I think the book clubs are wonderful, but never really wanted to be part of one. East of Eden was a compelling book that I picked up after hearing that it was on Oprah’s Book Club list. I felt that it qualified as something of a classic because of its author, John Steinbeck. It is an excellent read, thoroughly worthy of anybody's reading list, and I was glad to have found it.

After reading, I got into writing more. I discovered the Internet and put up a couple of blogs. I published a couple of books. I relocated and redirected my energies.

Now I’m past the first phase of retirement reading. Not that I read everything I wanted to, or everything I should have, during that time. I’m not settled into my new digs yet, and I’m not quite sure what I’ll read next. There is a wealth of literature calling me. And a wealth of friends urging me to write something more profound, more challenging, more universal. Something that might make me rich and famous. That is not my goal—I’m retired from all that. I never stopped reading, but I put the classics on hold. Now I’m beginning to hear them calling me again.

Feel free to offer suggestions of your favorite books.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Good Old Biggie's

Looking south from my new condo on Madison Street you can see the local landmark. Whenever I mention my new address to a Hoboken b-n-r, he/she lights up and says, "Biggie's!"

Biggies grew from a pushcart in the mid-1940's to a full-fledged diner today, featuring great, sloppy sandwiches, raw and fried clams, hamburgers, and for a few diehards, real Italian comfort food.I had lunch at Biggie's Tuesday with a couple of Hoboken b-n-r's, (that means, "born and raised in Hoboken" to you who are not in the know). We saw a nice older man--meaning older than us, which is indeed pretty old--eating something like greens out of a bowl. Carolyn's husband Rich said, "That man over there is eating something you'd love," to his wife. When Brother, the son of Biggie, and now the heir apparent to the title of "Biggie," came by our table, we asked what the man was eating. "Brocolli rabe," he said. "We make it with sausage."

I sighed that I had done the predictable by ordering fried clams. The others at the table had done the more Hoboken thing and ordered "Italian hot dogs," which are sausage sandwiches with onions and peppers--and a sausage-and-pepper sandwich, which is just a little different.

Today I had a phone call from Connie, who was one who had ordered a hot dog yesterday. I told her I was going to try the brocolli rabe the next time. I have never been a fan of brocolli rabe--I find it bitter--and Connie said, "I always add fresh lemon juice. If you don't do that it will be bitter."

This triggered a long conversation about how Italians cook vegetables, the dependency on fresh lemon juice for vegetables (I have to have lemon juice on my spinach), and other food notes. She said she adds olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice to everything from cauliflower to escarole. I realized I had been missing this offhand swapping of recipes and kitchen ideas.

I'm looking to meet others who love to talk about food and cooking. If you live in Hoboken and have ideas on the subject, get in touch with me. I'll cook up a little something for us someday soon.

I posted an original version of the above on my food blog yesterday, and got some interesting cooking tips in a comment from Dennis Maloney. Check it out, and let me know if you know of a cooking class or club in Hoboken, or if you just like to talk food and cooking.