Saturday, January 30, 2010


It's enough to make you want to take a winter vacation: Weather in the 20's today with a low of 18 predicted for tonight. And tonight I'll venture to Manhattan in that brutal cold to hear the beautiful Pamela Luss sing a little jazz in a club, with a rare appearance by her husband, my nephew Will Friedwald, as emcee. This means an oasis of warmth after walking 15 blocks to the PATH train--I may stop in a bar (or two) for a little red wine to warm my bones and break the trip. Returning home in the middle of the night I'll take a taxi from the subway once I get to Hoboken.

The vacay comes day after tomorrow. I've booked an adorable little furnished house on Pine Crest in Fairhope, Alabama, for the month of February, hoping for a more temperate climate and a warming trend in Hoboken when I return.

Most of you have read of my relationship to Fairhope. I have plugged my book about the utopian community for two years, and one or two of you have bought copies. It's where I grew up, left, returned, only to leave again more or less permanently in 2007. Fairhope is an upscale retirement community on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, with sunset views every evening and winter temperatures seldom getting below freezing. It was hit with the same arctic blast that almost devastated the citrus crops this year in January, but I am Photo by Robert Lee counting on that not happening again next month. In my experience such freakish weather events occur every 10 years or so.

Fairhope's sunny winters look better to me all the time from this perspective. I'm much happier living in Hoboken--which may be haunted but its ghosts, not being my ghosts, do not overwhelm me. But Fairhope is a nice place to visit.

I love living where there are four distinct seasons, even though one of them is winter, sure enough. I decided to see if I could shorten this one a month by visiting a familiar place where I can expect some chilly days, yes, but also probably at least a week where the thermometer doesn't go much below 75. I know enough not to predict the weather anyhere, but I can be sure in Fairhope it will be consistently warmer than here.

The rest I must prepare for. There is a sweet spirit in Fairhope, an innocence; a certain community spirit that attracts and holds newcomers. It is small-town USA. It is Southern, which means I will hear a lot about football and Fox News than I might be interested in. Because of its proximity to Mobile it will provide me with Moon Pies and Mardi Gras, both of which I am pretty adept at dodging. If you are not from the area, you won't understand this reference, but never mind. It's only important if you're planning a trip to Fairhope in February.

I shall put my mind to writing more seriously. The distractions of local sunsets, seafood, and visits with old friends aside, I will keep my days clear for some mental work. I am determined to get started on some literary projects, and minimize my blogs and my growing obsession with Facebook. On the other hand, it is a vacation, so if this plan doesn't go the way I'm saying I want it to, well, too bad. The trip will be a getaway.

Right now I'm in the throes of organizing, packing and anticipating. This is part of the fun of any vacation. I'm not there yet, but mentally I'm getting there. I can picture the little house, the little car I've resevered, the coffee at The Coffee Loft, the groceries I'll need to buy, and the nice warm air. There will be some blossoms already. There will be some Southern accents. It will a break from a harsh winter and the routine of my housebound days. I can take walks. I'll register at the Wellness Center of the hospital and will use it as I do the gym a few blocks away from my condo here.

I leave Monday and will return Monday March 1. I may post here occasionally or at my Fairhope blog". You'll find me if you look in one of these places, or at a café in Fairhope, signing books at Page & Palette, or on a pier watching a sunset. I'll be all over the place--and if you're looking for some words about Hoboken, this blog is full of them.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Am I Blue?

I went to Avatar determined to like it in spite of the fact I was aware I might not. I knew only that it was a special-effects miracle with a New-Age-green message delivered by some tall blue people. This is not my usual cup of tea.

But I’m reading a book by an old friend on the philosophy of Spinoza, and he sent me a review of the movie that suggested some shared meaning between the great 17th Century thinker and this 21st Century futuristic fantasy. From what I have learned so far of the philosophy of Spinoza (with whom Albert Einstein is said to have agreed) it is basically that what we refer to as God is not so much a human-like entity but rather a sustained connection of all living things. This led me to the movie house expecting, if not enlightenment, a bit of direction toward a spiritual path.

You don’t have to tell me I was asking too much from a film by James Cameron. I know his wildly successful Titanic was dismissed by many as predictable and melodramatic (what else, from a story whose ending we all know, revolving around such idealized fictional romantic characters?), but its ending was one of the most exhilarating moments I have had in a movie ever, and I thought this one just might give me a moment or two like that.

It did, once I got used to the blue people with their white-flecked flat-nosed faces. I was utterly transported by the flora and fauna of Cameron’s forest. I wanted to walk there forever. I loved his floating blossoms that looked like jellyfish and thistles. I loved his hideous monsters who must be fought to be tamed (the scene when the protaganist has to ride his glorious dragon and bond with it was almost painful in its handling of spectacle and phantasmagorical realism). The villainnous villains, in this case the Marines and corporate executives, were a little extreme for me, but then I always liked Oz better than Kansas too. Like Jake Scully, I wanted to go back.

I saw that these blue people didn’t pray to their God to help them win wars because they had an understanding that that was not "her" job; I saw that they were connected to the animals because they bonded with them and seemed to read their minds. However, I don’t see that as pantheism or Spinozism or any religion that I know of. Some say their connection to the “land” symbolized the spirit of the Native American people. Perhaps, but I think there is a great deal that we do not know about the religion of the Native American people (at least I don’t) and that idealizing it is a little too easy. If on one level Avatar is an allegory about our ravaging of the planet and every planet we discover, well, it does make that point, but as only a footnote in the film. If it is an indictment of the military-industrial complex, that’s not big news—President Eisenhower started that in 1961.

So none of the messages of the movie moved me much. On the other hand, the special effects were astonishing—and I have to tell you here that I didn’t even see it in 3-D; it was too hard to get a ticket at short notice. It’s a beautiful film, and one that will without question influence future filmmakers. It may affect some of the audience with its philosophy, as those of a more Conservative political persuasion than I are suggesting, and it may even open some young eyes, but I think what will last about the movie is what lasts about all good movies. It moves its audience to a place they’ve never been.

Spoiler alert: I had one niggling problem with the story, and I say niggling because I’ve not seen it mentioned in another review so it must not be very important. In the climactic scene when the blue princess saves the dying Jake, I almost said aloud, “You mean she knew all along she was in love with an avatar? She knew that human lying on the floor was him, needing to be revived with that air mask?”

So I was forced to suspend disbelief. That’s part of the agreement we make with any moviemaker when we walk through the door, particularly a movie like this. You expect a little preaching and probably a couple of hidden agendas that are hardly hidden. It won’t convert you to pantheism, or to Spinoza’s concept of a connecting substance underpinning all living forms, but it will decidedly take you on a trip you have not seen before outside your best dreams.

A nice innovation was the appearance of the title instead of “The End,” The soul is transferred from crippled human to tall blue warrior, its yellow eye opens and we are told we have just seen Avatar. There is applause in the theater.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hanging Out in Old Hoboken

In June of 2008 I posted on this blog some information from my correspondent from Old Hoboken, Bobby Slezak, about the perils of the clothesline brigade in the old days. Last week Slezak sent me a new picture of the clotheslines and I thought the whole post deserved a second look. Here it is, with the new picture.
Slezak remembers an aspect of Old Hoboken he'd probably rather forget:

MONDAY MORNING WASH DAY, and the daredevils who had the job of putting up the clotheslines, when one broke. Every block had one brave soul...and I was the chosen one for my block. My mom got me the job...THANKS MOM.

You carried a hammer and the line around your neck...and began your climb...hitting each spike to insure that it was safe to step on. It always seemed to be the one at the top that was broken. Most of the time and on a cold and windy day, freezing your hands till they were numb, as all the wives braving the cold on their fire escapes watched me as I made my climb...praying for me. I FELT LIKE A CIRCUS ACT WITH NO NET.

WASH DAY was when every one knew if you had a hole in your undies. IT WAS PUT OUT FOR ALL TO SEE. And you only got a dollar a climb. I SUPPOSE THEY DON'T DO THAT ANYMORE IN HOBOKEN, thanks to washers and dryers.

Now that you mention it, Slezak, I haven't seen any clotheslines in Hoboken since I moved here in December (2007). Call it progress. Call it 21st Century technology. Call it the avoidance of child abuse. But you must have been a nimble lad in your day, putting up those clotheslines for the local housewives, and surviving to tell the tale some sixty years later. As usual, you paint a vivid picture of days gone by. At least you could drop by Abel's for an ice cream with your dollar.

Slezak's comment, when he emailed me the new picture: Funny we never saw Alice Kramden hanging out the wash...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Movies To Cry For

My friend Cristina told me she had caught The Bridges of Madison County on cable last week. She'd seen it before, she said, but this time it really hit her. She started crying about halfway through and couldn't stop.

I had to confess that I'd seen the first ten minutes and couldn't take any more. Not that I found it sad; I found it dead boring. I didn't want to insult her--I know many people who loved the book and the movie and found them both overwhelmingly moving. I couldn't finish the book and disliked the movie even more. But I didn't want to sound like a heartless ice queen type; I can hardly watch any movie without a tear or two rolling down one cheek or the other--even a comedy.

I tried to think of a movie that did me in as that one did Cristina. I lay awake that night and couldn't think of one. I dug down deep into my childhood (we all cried when Beth died in Little Women, in the book too). As a teenager I wept at the field of dying soldiers in Gone With the Wind, was wiped out by the innocent naif Leslie Caron in Lili (I was an innocent naif too). I cried when it looked as if Doris Day had married the wrong man (Frank Sinatra) in Young at Heart while smoothie Gig Young still loved her. As a young bride I was inconsolable when Richard Baseheart died in La Strada ("The fool is dead, Zampano! The fool won't laugh any more!"), and cried inspired tears when Charlie Chaplin taught Claire Bloom to walk in Limelight. I made the decision in that darkened theater to audition for Actors' Studio, which I did within months.

Other "weeper" movies did nothing for me. I couldn't tolerate the characters in Love Story, and didn't buy that love means never having to say you're sorry. I missed Somewhere in Time, but have seen bits of it on television. I love The Sound of Music, but mostly for that Austrian folk dance and the song "I Must Have Done Something Right." I'm a bit of a sucker for Christopher Plummer. I know he hated working on the movie and called it "The Sound of Mucous," but it didn't make me cry.

I lost it at Beaches. At the time I saw it my flamboyant lifelong best friend had mysterious symptoms and was seeing a doctor--the movie was a glimpse of the future for me and it was cathartic to have my worst fears played out before they came true.

Why The Bridges of Madison County didn't work for me I'm not sure. I really kind of like being manipulated by clever authors even when I know they are doing it, but this seemed formulaic and predictable to me. The characters didn't seem real in the book and less so as impersonated by Clint Eastwood (too old) and Meryl Streep (not sexy enough). Don't get me wrong, I admire both actors, but they didn't suit their roles--maybe it's because I know them too well. Had the film starred two unknowns I might have been able to suspend disbelief.

Reading this, you will think of movies that made you wish for a whole box of Kleenex instead of the one ragged one you'd been keeping in your purse for months. Maybe there are men who cry at movies too. Let me know which ones did it for you.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Day in New York

It was kinda like it was when I first got here, but at least it wasn't very cold.

I really don't think I did this kind of thing before I got to Hoboken, but it has happened so often since I arrived in December 2007 that I'm beginning to wonder if early senility has set in. Confused and without a cell phone, I wondered if I was in the wrong place or the wrong time, wasn't sure I could find the place I was going or if the person I was supposed to meet was going to get there.

I was to meet John at the Hoboken PATH station at 11 Thursday. From there we would go together to Lincoln Center to see a movie at the Jewish Film Festival. We had made all the arrangements on Facebook, even down to his explicit instructions about the quickest way to get to Lincoln Center (get off the PATH at 33rd and walk to 7th Ave. to the IRT and take the uptown train). I walked briskly and timed myself--it took exactly 20 minutes to get to the PATH station from my house, and I arrived ten minutes early. It was when I got there that I realized I had left my cell phone at home.

Okay, I was a little mad at myself. I had charged the phone and it was sitting on the granite kitchen counter, waiting for me to pick it up, but once again I had left it behind. I don't have a whole lot of need for a cell phone, but this kind of a day was when I knew very well having one along could avert potential disaster. I had given John the number, and it would be very helpful if he could reach me to tell me when he was getting near the PATH station. I waited for 20 minutes, 30, and began thinking, "What if we said 11:30 instead of 11 as I remembered?" I decided to wait until 11:35 and then go get on a train which would be about ten more minutes before leaving. I could find my way to Lincoln Center using John's instructions, and catch him there--or maybe he would find me on the train.

I didn't see him on the train. I went to Lincoln Center, which is quite transformed since I last was there about 20 years ago. I found the theater where the Jewish Film Festival was being held, but no John. He had set the whole excursion early to allow plenty of time to get into the theater in time to get a decent seat. I knew he had already paid for two tickets online and wondered if he'd gotten there early to get seats. I waited. When it got to be about ten minutes before show time, and dozens of little Jewish people had come in couples and groups to file into the theater, I realized I probably had missed John somewhere along the way. I kept thinking if-I-were-him-looking-for-me what would I do and always came to the conclusion that I would give up on me and just get my ass to the theater. But no John. So I went through the worst-case-scenario scene and decided that we had simply missed each other, damn myself anyway for not bringing my cell phone--and there were a lot of movies in Manhattan I'd just as soon see. I had time to find one. I started in that direction when I found John heading toward the theater! He told me that he had actually said to meet him at 11:30 and when he saw he was going to be ten minutes late he called my cell phone to let me know.

The upshot was we got into the theater in time to get good seats, and yes, the Walter Reade did fill up. We saw a fascinating antique called The Bar Mitzvah, which was charming in it corniness, and afforded us the opportunity to learn a little about immigrant Jewish life in the early 20th Century and see a performance by the legendary Boris Thomashevsky and his wife, actress Bessie Thomashevski, having a great time, singing, emoting, and generally chewing the scenery in classical style. There was an introduction, some comments by the grandson of the couple (the eminent conductor Michael Tilson Thomas) and a question and answer period after the movie.

John and I had a cup of coffee and a nice long chat after the show and went our separate ways. I picked up a bottle of wine at Sparrow's on Washington Street on my way home. By the end of the day I felt quite good about knowing my way around New York so well; I had learned some more about my Jewish friends, and certainly John knew a little more about me. I also came one step closer to learning to bring my cell phone with me on my travels. There were five messages from John when I checked it.

Friday, January 8, 2010

I Am the Food Network

As of early January, there has been a blackout of both The Food Network and HG-TV, cable channels that feature programs on cooking and home and garden decor in the New York area. Some 3 million households are affected including those in Hoboken.

As an addict of both channels, I suffered withdrawal for several days. The dispute became apparent to viewers when the owners of the networks took the channels off the air and the cable provider ran a disclaimer on both channels advising viewers to call and tell the owners to put the channels back while negotiations continued. I did, and a number of my Hoboken friends who suffered the same as I did made similar calls. We were bounced from the cable provider to the channel owners with the admonishment to be sure to tell them to put their channels on the air. The channel owner had a couple of similar recordings and a customer-service representative who read a statement saying that the cable provider hadn't paid their fee and that was why the channels were pulled.

It's been almost a week now that I've been without my two most-watched channels, and I'm beginning to adapt. Today at lunch I made myself a poached chicken breast, a stuffed sweet potato, and a serving of brocolli that looked like a plate shown in a magazine. I boned the breast myself and sliced the meat into about three cutlets, poaching some for the future and even setting one raw one in the refrigerator to be prepared at some later date. I chattered to myself as I produced this model meal, and wound up my presentation with, "What the hell-- I am the food network."

For years when friends saw me in the kitchen chopping, sorting, and arranging party food, they would say, "You look like someone on tv." I would remind them, as I have said on this blog, that I learned to cook from Julia Child. Maybe that's why I cook that way--whatever, it's fun. Sometimes I think my whole life is just a show I carry with me everywhere--a portable home and cooking show.

To tell the truth, there is much that irritates me on both those channels. Food TV seems to think that to make cooking interesting they have to make a competiton out of it, and to create "reality" shows that look as phony as anything on the networks. And HG-TV shows endless re-runs of the biggest bores in the world looking for expensive real estate on "House Hunters" and all its variations.

I can watch cooking on PBS and home decorating tomorrow morning on A&E and The Learning Channel. Or I can just continue to stage my life as one occasionally interrupted Food Network Show and enjoy it. Come to think of it, my new condo is a real life version of HG-TV as well. The channel owners and the cable provider appear to be back at the bargaining table, and both channels may be back on as soon as tomorrow.

But what do I care? I am my own reality show.