Sunday, August 30, 2009

Open Letter to Barbara Walters

I've just finished reading your autobiography, Audition. I know, it's been out there a couple of years, but now I've gotten around to it and can only tell you I admire the book and its author more than you can know.It's hard to imagine what it's like to have become an institution in one's own lifetime, but with your adventures and your ability to distill them for us, there's really almost no other way I can look at you.

I am of an age which placed me in a position to watch your early days first hand ("Live!") on the Today show, when you may have been green but I was way greener. I observed the world as it changed around us while you were in the middle. Through you I got to hear a lot of people say things they probably wished they could take back a minute later, and they said those things to you. Then you went forward to others who jumped through hoops for you and may have regretted it. Your relentless questions revealed the reality of many a bogus blowhard and yet you never intruded your own opinions even when you might have wanted to. In Audition, you take us backstage a little, to some of the history you witnessed and even made just by being on the scene--always keeping it chatty, personal, and interesting.

It must be hard for young people to comprehend how difficult it was to do what you did because you were a woman. Men owned the power jobs; and they fought like hell to keep it that way even when you were closing in on them. Some of that atmosphere comes through in your honest telling of the stories you covered, although you never whine. Indeed, your rise coincided with the Women's Movement though you didn't overtly align yourself with it. You simply achieved, in spite of all the odds against you, and the Movement itself benefited from the need for network news to have at least one token female in the high echelons. You were superb at what you did, and your book is a fascinating retelling of many tales along the way.

Dear Ms. Walters, you candidly tell of what it is like to be Barbara Walters, of the forces that helped create you and the childhood insecurities that still push you to keep ahead of the game. With a fabled entrepreneurial father who was mostly absent and always less than available to you--engaged as he was on the up-and-down rollercoaster of nightclub show business--you grew up resilient but always fearful that the splendid job you had might not be there tomorrow. Your mother spent her life preoccupied with your learning-disabled sister.

So you chose television, and the very insecurity of the field may have been the spur you needed. You got the big interviews, bigger as your career moved forward, and nobody knew how hard some of the men in the business made it or how complicated your personal life was. Now, with Audition, we have some idea. Reading it is like getting an aisle seat to history and getting to know a classy woman who knows what to tell and how to tell it.

I'm inspired by your life and pleased with your book. I hope you continue to prosper (I hate to mention you've got a milestone birthday coming up), and that you'll continue to share your experiences so openly both in print and on the broadcast media!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hearing Hoboken

I’ve never mentioned this, but people in Hoboken share a certain kind of voice. Women and men, maybe children too. The main characteristic of this is that they talk louder than other people. Oh, yes, they have a distinctive accent—similar to Jersey City and even Brooklyn. But they all seem to assume that the rest of the world is hard of hearing. Even in ordinary conversation, their voices carry across the room. Sometimes I think they should all go on the stage.

When you do an accent for the theatre, you begin with voice placement. The Hoboken voice is husky, coming from the throat,
rather than the head or chest. The t’s and d’s are spoken in the front of the mouth, hissing through the teeth. “Th,” of course, is pronouced like a “d” in any other dialect (dis for this). I met a really nice Hoboken native a couple of weeks ago, a lady who runs a long-standing chocolate shop in the old Italian section of town, which will be my new neighborhood. The voice was a bellow—deep as a man’s, and very loud. Otherwise, she was an attractive, nice lady. Something about that booming voice was very endearing.

Yesterday I was in the Garden Wine and Liquor Store, which is not on Garden but rather one block over on Park. I had been told to drop by there months ago by Slezak, a regular reader and commenter here. He told me the people who run Garden Liquor know him from the old days and they are great people. I’ve been meaning to check it out, but didn’t get around to it until yesterday, because I was passing by, and know that liquor stores usually are very generous with cartons when you are planning to move. It is a small store, but astonishingly well stocked with wines and every conceivable kind of liquor. A fat old dog lay on the floor and observed me, but the man behind the counter ducked out as soon as I came in, leaving me to browse and await his return. The dog regarded me suspiciously, apparently checking that I didn’t leave with anything valuable.

When the man behind the counter returned, he proceeded to ring up my order, a bottle of pinot grigio. He asked if he could do anything else for me.

I engaged him in a conversation, and his loud voice blew me away. It was okay, I’ve lived in Hoboken for a year and a half now, and this vocal volume is his badge of authenticity. I almost said, “Do you think I’m deaf?” but of course I didn’t. I must say this about him also—he was very virile, attractive, oh, hell, I admit it. He was sexy, with graying hair and brown, Italian-looking eyes. And the voice didn’t hurt a bit. Such reactions crop up, even at my age. Don’t you dare laugh. But I was on a quest here, so forget I said that.

What I wanted to know was if the store occasionally had cartons to give to people who are moving. We had a good chat about that—with him telling me some days they had a hundred, some days, not so much. Then he said this wonderful Hoboken thing.

“Why don’t you place a delivery order and ask for extra cartons?”

“A big order, you mean.”

“No, whatever you want. A bottle of wine, whatever. Just tell us you want a few extra cartons. Then you don’t have to carry them all the way home.”

I love the Garden Wine and Liquor Store. You should check the reviews. You’ll find a heap of comments from satisfied customers, with nobody mentioning the voice or accent of the owner.

I’m going to go by personally and pick up cartons from now until I move. I may have some wine delivered too. I’m sure the delivery boy is the grandson of the man behind the counter. What do you bet he’s got that Hoboken voice too?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Life Is a Yard Sale

Okay, maybe life isn't a yard sale, but I liked the sound of that when I posted on my other blog Finding Fair Hope in March of 2007. This was originally written from the vantage point of southern Alabama, when I was reorganizing my stuff and learning to edit the detritus that I had accumulated over the years. We don't call them "yard sales" at all in Hoboken, we call them gate sales, as they are held in front of the house, on the sidewalk, at the gate.

I've been thinking about doing a gate sale since the meat grinder incident of a couple of weeks ago, but I don't think I'll get around to it since I'm probably moving before the end of next week.

This is what I posted two years ago:

I just organized a nice big yard sale yesterday and sold about $200 worth of stuff I needed to get rid of, including three chairs, some pots and pans, and lots of old dishes. The leftovers are sitting on my front porch waiting for me to take them off to the Thrift Shop as a donation.

Sometimes you just look at your stuff and you say, "Why?" which may be one of the ways life is a yard sale. Somebody gave you something you didn't really love, but your love for the giver caused you to hold on to the object. Years went by and the giver went out of your life but the object stayed. For a while it was nice to have a reminder..."I'll never forget that afternoon when you gave me this little teapot," or, "That costume jewelry was my mother's," or "I'm glad that bastard is out of my life, but at least I still have this wine-bottle-holder." In time the memory fades, or perhaps sours, and the object becomes just one more item in a carton of unused stuff in the garage. When yard sale time comes, the whole box goes on the market.

Some items remain in the storage locker of your life, no matter how many yard sales you have. You take them out every time and decide you're not ready to cut them out. But eventually almost every little thing has to go.

My sister and I have the big one to plan when we finally clean out our mother's house for the last time. Do we keep the rose plates our grandmother treasured, even though we never even knew our grandmother? Already we've begun dividing the mementos Mama always called "family pieces." Some of them we actually want to hold onto. Some are almost a guilt trip. For the final analysis we'll call in a professional estate planner who will tell us if any of the things is really worth anything, and then we'll decide which to keep and which to part with.

When the yard sale is in progress, buyers always haggle to get your prices down, and you have to be prepared for that. They always begin to show up at least two hours before the appointed time of the sale, to get you off guard and possibly to get the price lowered for the best items. We learned yesterday not to allow any early viewers; you must have time to put a sale plan into action. And when somebody makes an offer of a dollar for something you have put at $10 tag on, it's useless to say, "But I paid $50 for that!" Either go down to eight, or forget it. It doesn't matter how much you originally paid for anything. After the sale, it's going to the thrift shop or to the dump anyway.

After a little practice, giving a yard sale gets to be fun, like life. Know what to expect, get over your sentimental attachments, and put your stuff out on a table. Then see what happens.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Woodstock: What Was It Really?

I was older than those who flocked to Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, NY, not far outside the village of Woodstock 40 years ago this weekend. Being just ahead of the baby boomers, I have been observing their behavior all my life, and here was the seminal event for them, a gathering of thousands in a peaceful, chaotic, scary, sexy, drug-enhanced weekend of the music and musicians that resonated to their very souls. I saw ads for the upcoming concert in the New York Times, and thought it seemed like an amazing event.

In those days I loved the protest rock music of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, and the many like them. Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and Joe Cocker were beyond me. I have been a square since before it was cool not to be and I've never quite shaken it. As to music, although there were many performers I would have love to have heard, the venue of a huge outdoor concert didn't appeal to me. (If you don't know what "square" means, that's pretty much it in a nutshell.) I was old enough to think about my creature comforts.

But thousands weren't. They were the boomers--the engaged, the sincere, the aching kids distraught at the prospect of the quicksand of Viet Nam and the injustices they saw all around them in the world of grownups--and they outnumbered my own silent generation by a long shot. Many of them went to Woodstock '69 as innocents just wanting to hear the music and be with their friends and significant others; many returned transformed into to young men and women who would take us all on. We on the outside read news reports and heard on the broadcast media and were impressed and relieved that, despite the lack of facilities or bedrooms, in spite of the rain, mobs, and mud, and even though there was some use of controlled substances, a mood of controlled peace and love prevailed.

That generation wore their hair longer than we did. All the girls bore the same hairstyle--long, parted in the middle and straight as a poker. Now their boyfriends did too, although some of them had curl in their hair and they would not iron it as the girls did. After Woodstock, this "look" was with us for a decade. It was a Woodstock look, a "hippie" look, a defiant look that clashed with any that was different. In a way, it was at least as conformist as the look it seemed to protest.

Woodstock was the crystallization of many things for this country. Because it was about music, primarily, and because much of the music was political, a generation was politicized as none had been before. Many who were not hippies before Woodstock became so after it. All of us had to take notice; the world was upside down and parents were forced to listen to their children. Those who hadn't been to Woodstock behaved as if they had. The upheavals and protests on college campuses took on a different tone, and life in these United States would not be the same.

Was it good? On balance, probably so. What really happened was that the rest of us had to accept the dominance of this generation of post-war babies, like it or not. Now that we've had enough time, I would say I like it. But I'm glad I'm still square.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Julia Child, American Idol

Before the term meant unknown singing star catapulted to fame by a television competition, Julia Child was an American idol in the true sense. An author of a respected cookbook, she made a guest appearance on Boston Public Television in the early 1960's and came to change the world--particularly the world of home cooking in America--forever. It is impossible to exaggerate the enormity of what she accomplished.

Look, I'm an elder now. I can remember the American kitchen before Julia Child's advent, and it wasn't a pretty sight. It is difficult for young people to comprehend that in the 1940s and 50s, almost nobody in the country even knew what a whisk was. We had the eggbeater, a little hand-held contraption with gears and a handle that could work for whipping cream and beating egg whites. The eggbeater had evolved into the Mixmaster, an electrical version, which was helpful for beating batters that came from adding liquid to cake mixes. The joy of cooking from scratch was rare, and it was discouraged by industry and the mood and pace of the times.

When Julia Child first appeared on our black-and-white television screens, she was more than an amusing woman with a funny voice and odd accent. She was an expert teacher with an accessible manner who instantly connnected with the earnest if ignorant home cook. I'm sorry that the burlesques of her are so effective that at times they obscure the eccentric charm and talent of the woman who knew so much about French cooking and intuited how much we young wives wanted to learn about it. Before her, there were indeed cooking shows--usually local ones that flashed on the screen a recipe using condensed canned soups, etc., at the beginning, briefly demonstrating how to make a family casserole or similar concoction. Such shows were time fillers when there was little coming from the networks on daytime; nobody expected to learn how to cook by watching them. On public television Child reinvented the form, organizing ingredients and planning the steps of preparation, taking us slowly through the paces of creating a classic sauce and telling us how to use it in any number of ways to produce masterpieces of French cuisine. With her encouragement, we tried ingredients we'd never heard of, attempted techniques we had had no way of seeing before, and learned to love eating as well as cooking.

I could write a book about how much I and the world owe to Julia Child. I'm trying to restrain myself here from doing just that, because I want to write about the new movie, Julie & Julia, and encourage everyone to see it. I know the film will be a hit. Women want to see the superb Meryl Streep as Julia, and men will tolerate it because Julia's personality shines through in Streep's brilliant performance. The movie does not need my endorsement, and certainly Julia Child doesn't, but I do have a few points to make that film critics may have missed.

I read the book Julie & Julia a few years ago and found it most engaging. It involves a young would-be writer in New York who wants to brighten up her life and comes up with the idea of writing a blog about cooking every recipe in Julia Child and Simone Beck's opus Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She doesn't have an easy time of it, but she all but worships Julia Child, and at the end of the project she has a certain amount of fame plus a book contract.

Nora Ephron--who is the perfect writer to deal with this material, being a lover of cooking and an admirer of Julia Child (plus a writer of delightful, romantic screenplays)--includes the character of Julia Child in Julie Powell's story, interweaving the Childs' early life in Paris with young Julie's plowing her way through the cookbook in today's world.

Already the critics are saying that Mrs. Child in the person of Ms. Streep overpowers the movie and they almost suggest we could do without Julie Powell. On the other hand, I identified totally with the Powell character, a young woman who came to love cooking on a whole new level through her exposure to the work of the master. Julie Powell represents all of American womanhood, struggling to matter through learning the craft and art of producing unforgettable food.

It is extraordinary to get a glimpse of the life Julia and Paul Child lived in Paris, then returning to the more mundane existence of the young couple just making their way in a small, old apartment in Queens. The juxtaposition is perhaps a bit of a let-down. But to me, it was just the touch such a movie needs. It's like life--taking you down and up and back again, from lofty place to reality in a parallel universe. You know Julie is going to make it, just as you know young Julia is. The movie is not concerned with the heights either one reaches, but the journey they take.

No doubt this is a chick flick, with the husbands little more than accessories. But what delicious hunks these husbands are--Stanley Tucci as the ultimate dream spouse, loving, supporting, and cherishing his larger-than-life (needless to say, in more ways than one) wife, and Chris Messina as Julie's studly young man reconciled to taking a back seat for a while as his wife endures the tribulations of finding herself.

Many will go to the movie just to see Streep as Child and will not like much else about it. I implore you to take the "Julie" part of the movie seriously, as it is a testament to the impact of the real Julia Child, who was so much more than a sketch on Saturday Night Live. May you come to a better understanding of what the world was like before we all owned whisks.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Okay, Hoboken! Freeze!

In June of 2007 I made my first trip to Hoboken, and I was hooked. Looking for a place to move, I thought I might find it near New York, where I had spent 13 years of my happy youth. Manhattan, I discovered, was out of reach financially, and the surrounding boroughs just didn't ignite my enthusiasm.

But one look at Hoboken did it for me. Here's what I posted on my blog Finding Fair Hope after my first brief visit here:

Freeze, Hoboken! Don’t let the developers in to tear down your glorious old buildings on Washington Street and put up something cheaper and tackier. Stay as sweetly raffish and wise as you are today, with Italian restaurants, bakeries, and row houses all over. The casual observer sees Catholic churches everywhere, and a beautiful Tudor style Episcopal church (with an announcement on its board outside of a celebration of the history of Gay Pride Week) as the main street becomes residential and trees crop up.

The Hoboken "attitude" is well-known. The surprise after actually visiting is how small-town nice the place is. One short shot on the train and you're in the West Village, in New York itself, but ignoring that, the small city of Hoboken (pop. 38,000, one mile square and so tightly bound by Newark on one side and Jersey City on the other, unable to grow) has a personality all its own.

Hoboken abounds with websites and blogs. Just Google it. There is an annual Italian Festival, a reknowned Music Festival, and Saints' Festivals galore. There are three theatre companies, one producing Shakespeare (de Vere) in the park. The Hoboken Library is said to have a special section of CD's of its favorite son, Frank Sinatra.

The view of Manhattan from Sinatra Park is spectacular. Sidewalk caf├ęs flank the fancy apartment buildings that face the river and the park. Beautiful people sip pretty drinks and see the mommies with with strollers across the way.

Stay this way, Hoboken. I can't stand to see one more important little American town lose its heart and soul.

I've been here since December of that year. While Hoboken didn't turn out to be the idyllic haven I described above, it hasn't disappointed. Of course, it didn't freeze as it was either, but then, neither did I. But neither of us has lost heart nor soul.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Reality Television and Julia's Child (Me)

I watched "The Next Food Network Star" followed by "The Next Home & Garden Network Star" last night. There are some reality shows I'm hooked on, some I'm not, and I'm fascinated by the concept that we are watching anything vaguely connected to reality.

Food TV interests me because I love to cook. The new movie Julie & Julia might expose another generation to the phenomenon that was Julia Child, but the movie, charming though it promises to be, is not particularly likely to create an interest in cooking great dishes from scratch, like the original Julia did. In her way, because television was live, Child's public tv offerings were among the first "reality" shows. Not slick, not prepackaged--anything could happen, and we could all count on our dear, dotty Aunt Julia to entertain us by behaving like a real live human being under pressure.

The Next Food Network Star is not anything like Julia Child's show. This session there was very little drama leading up to the selection, and, try as they did to milk that for the finale, it was pretty much a boring love fest except for the presentations of the two contenders. The judges didn't give reasons for their selection, but it's likely they felt they chose the most appropriate new persona for their specific viewing demographic.

You all know I've taken an interest in the glossy "Real Housewives of New Jersey" and will probably give it a look if it returns in the fall. That one, however, seemed to have a beginning, a middle and an end, which was that the housewives began to see there is such a thing as overexposure and they're better off out of the limelight now.

Yesterday's New York Times has an article suggesting that the producers of some of the shows like "Hell's Kitchen" and "The Bachelor" provide the dramatic tension necessary for "good television" by enhancing reality by a combination of witholding creature comforts and providing copious amounts of alcohol. The Times also had an exhaustive article yesterday about the Food Network itself, saying essentially that it is not in place to teach people to cook, but instead to teach them to watch people cook, and to stimulate the kind of interest in food that will send them to gourmet restaurants and sell them status-symbol kitchen appliances and prepackaged foods. It is cooking as entertainment. Most of its lineup is involved with short cuts and sandwich making. In order to induce more men to watch, it has created shows like "Iron Chef" and the many contest shows that clog its schedule. I don't know if a complete novice cook could learn the old-fashioned basics from any of the Food Network offerings.

I learned to cook in two ways: Somebody gave me a basic cookbook as a wedding gift and I decided to cook every recipe in it. A few years later Julia Child came on tv and I refined my knowledge by trying what she demonstrated. I made croissants from scratch after seeing her do it. I made a Yule Log for (and with) my daughter and stepdaughter at ages 6 and 7. And I learned all about wine, cheese, bread, plating, and I cooked dozens of recipes I never heard about as a girl in Lower Alabama with a mother who couldn't care less about food. I came to the conclusion that one of the most effective uses of television was that it could teach people how to cook.

It's a different world now. I live in a place where there are excellent restaurants on every corner and everybody uses takeout as an adjunct to the kitchen, if they ever use their kitchens at all. I'm about to move to an apartment with one of the best-equipped kitchens I've ever had--it's essentially a great kitchen with a few rooms attached. I wonder whether I'll take up where I left off with Julia Child, slinging knives and producing delicate souffles, or slip into old age just watching other people do it on tv. I'm hoping for the former.