Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas in New York




We spent the holidays in New York, visiting with Rod's daughter (aka my adored stepdaughter). She's going through a rough patch right now, so I think our presence was especially welcome. The city, as always, was wonderful: Central Park still shimmered from the recent snow fall, and the stores glittered with lights. New York is fabulous year-round, but at Christmas it's just sensational.

Tuesday evening we ate with Megan at a Cuban restaurant in midtown called Victor's Cafe. It's been around forever and could easily double as the set for an episode of I Love Lucy. The food was nicely seasoned, but the lackluster service resulted in food arriving lukewarm to our table, a pet peeve (see previous posts). I wouldn't return.

Afterwards we saw Roundabout's new revival of Pal Joey at Studio 54. The production is very good indeed, with a terrific combo backing the singers and slick, professional staging; indeed, the scene changes were the best I've seen in a long time, due partly to the brilliant design of the set and partly to the professionalism of the stage hands. Fluid, seamless, and, best of all, quiet, the set magically transformed from a thirties nightclub to a Fifth Avenue penthouse.

Stockard Channing is well cast as Vera Simpson, the older society dame who falls hard for Joey. She doesn't have a great voice, but her rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" is perhaps the most poignant I've ever heard. In the tradition of great Broadway chanteuses, diction and emotion more than compensated for limited range. Martha Plimpton, playing the tough chorine Gladys Bumps, nearly walks away with the show and reminds everyone why she's a perennial favorite on Broadway these days. Jenny Fellner does a nice turn as the ingenue, and she has a crystalline soprano perfect for the role.

Excellent performances by the women are not enough, though: the role of Joey makes or breaks the show. Matthew Risch, who was thrust into the lead halfway through rehearsals, taking over from Christian Hoff, is a superb song and dance man. He has a great, old-fashioned voice, slightly redolent of Frank Sinatra, and like ole' blue eyes, he knows just how to hold a note that extra half-second to create interesting phrasing. Risch's polished performance, though, doesn't get at the heart of Joey--his demons or his sexuality. This is a man, after all, who manages to seduce an upright virgin and a knowing socialite. The book also makes evident his prior involvement with Gladys, the embittered, used up chorine. At least two of these characters are women who have been around the block; clearly, they should avoid Joey, who has "trouble" emblazoned on his forehead, but they fall anyway. The actor playing Joey needs to convey the heat, the danger, and the thrill that would encourage otherwise worldly women to throw caution to the wind. Alas, Risch just doesn't have "it."

Still, this is a show I recommend if you like (as I do) classic American musicals. The book has always been considered problematic, but the revisions do a good job of smoothing out some of the rough patches that dogged previous productions. And as much as I hate to admit it, Pal Joey reminded me why Broadway shows still have that polish one rarely finds in even very good Washington theatre. The difference shows more in the staging than the acting.

We spent Christmas Eve at the Natural History Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the former we saw a special exhibit on the horse, which is very good indeed (and soon to close); at the latter, we saw a show on love and art in Renaissance Italy, again quite good, and another exhibit showcasing acquisitions made by the outgoing curator, which was so-so. Truly I think the Met is one of the great museums in the world, if not the greatest. I never tire of going there. As for the Natural History Museum, it made me sad to see the shabby building and woefully outdated dioramas, with moth-eaten birds and other sad examples of taxidermy. Only the dinosaur wing has been recently updated; everything else looks old and neglected. I found myself wondering if the entire concept of a natural history museum might not be outmoded in our virtual world. Certainly, much of it needs to be overhauled. Interactive screens would help, as would interactive video.

I'm afraid we crashed on Christmas Eve, exhausted from the crowds and hours of walking. We watched Woody Allen's new movie, "Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona" in our hotel room, a low-key and pleasant end to a frenetic day.

Christmas day we celebrated with Megan and our friends Donna and Mike (who had carpooled with us from Annapolis) at Remi, a glorious Northern Italian restaurant in midtown. Megan had a superb lobster risotto; I had equally fine seared tuna. We ate, visited, and drank for hours, enjoying the leisure and the company. In the late afternoon, we wandered over to the half-price ticket booth off Times Square, hoping to nab tickets to Gypsy or one of the other shows playing on Christmas day, but half of New York had the same idea. The wait was upward of 90 minutes; dejected, we hiked over to the large (24 screen) cinema complex on 42nd Street with the intent of seeing Slum Dog Millionaire, but again crowds defeated us. Unbelievably, every show was sold out until 10.00 p.m. Vanquished, we ended our Christmas sojourn in the bar at the Hotel W, where I had my first ever lychee martini, a weird but surprisingly good drink.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Search for a Saddle


Finding a saddle is one of the more frustrating aspects of owning a horse. Imagine trying to find a comfortable shoe that fits not only your own foot but also the appendage of another species--and you both get to wear the same item simultaneously.

I sold my fancy dressage saddle a few weeks ago. I hated the damn thing and felt entirely liberated when a girlfriend remarked last summer that it put me in a lousy position and didn't fit Beau especially well. It was an expensive used saddle I found for an astonishingly modest price at a tack shop in Middleburg. It never felt good from the start, but I somehow thought that discomfort was just part of the deal with a dressage saddle. That I managed to unload it for far more than I paid offset somewhat the two years of contorted riding I endured in the bloody thing.

That left me with the all-purpose Crosby, a saddle I have loved like no other. It's soft, cushiony and molds nicely to my bottom and Beau's back. The leather cleans up well. The problem is this: everyone else (by which I mean trainers) hates the saddle. Nina Holm, my new trainer (and owner of Glenwood Farm in Harwood, where I now board Beau), grumbled during our second lesson that the saddle, by trying to be a little of everything, ended up being nothing in particular. It doesn't put me in an ideal position for jumping, nor does it allow me the long leg and deep seat necessary for proper flat work. I realized then that she was the latest in a succession of trainers to complain about the Crosby.

I have stubbornly clung to the saddle like a bad drug addiction, knowing full well I should stop but unable to control my need. This time, though, I will truly go cold turkey. I thought about keeping the Crosby for trail riding, but I'm afraid I will fall off the wagon, sneaking rides on it in the arena when no one is looking.

So Friday morning I begin the great saddle search. I have four saddles to try from the Surrey; if they don't pan out, then I will cast a net farther afield, to Middleburg, to Pennsylvania, and, if necessary, to North Carolina. In the meantime, I have attached a picture of the Crosby Soft Ride, soon to be consigned to the tack shop. Sigh.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Bittern in the Baltimore Aquarium


On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we went with Alex and his delightful girlfriend Kristen to the Baltimore Aquarium. I had not been there for a number of years, so I was glad for the excuse. Happily we didn't encounter too many school groups, and at points we even had exhibits to ourselves.

I was pleased that the aquarium has been so well maintained in recent years; I was also delighted to see some new exhibits, such as the recreation of Australian wetland habitats. We marveled at the birds and monkeys and oohed appropriately at the more cuddly creatures (not tarantulas, which always make me shiver).

We were especially bemused, however, at a bittern (see photo) who had positioned himself strategically along a walkway so humans could pet him. At first, we worried he might be ill; after all, wild birds rarely offer themselves up for voluntary cuddling. We also fretted that he might contract some virus from all those human hands or that some perverse soul might seize the opportunity to harm him. Rod informed a guard of our concerns which, it appears, were for naught. The story is this: Mr. Bittern, at some point in his captivity, decided that he liked the companionship of humans more than birds. He took up residence along the walkways, perching on ledges where human hands could easily reach down and smooth his feathers. Repeatedly his keepers moved him to remote locales within the aviary, only to be defeated by Mr. Bittern's stubborn refusal to dwell among his mates. Finally, the aquarium capitulated, permitting this gregarious avian to socialize with humans but ensuring his safety through carefully positioned security cameras.

I watched Mr. Bittern teach his admiring throng the proper way to pet him: between the wings, on the shoulders. He particularly liked a gentle stroking motion. Any hand that attempted to get near his face or neck was met with a steely glare and a sharp peck. "Yes, you can pet me," he seemed to say, "but only on my terms." Mr. Bittern was the topping on an already swell day.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Maggie: Resquiat in Pacem


I am woefully behind in my blogs, having taken a long break from writing. In part the silence was due to design issues with my book: irritable and frustrated at the fruitless results, I just didn't have it in me to write in the evenings. Happily, those issues are now resolved, but the decline and inevitable death of our beloved Maggie also made it difficult to write.

It is almost impossible to talk about the demise of a pet without sounding self-indulgent. Undoubtedly one should be redirecting the time and money lavished on a pet to charities and worthy causes. For those of us who love animals, though, the prospect of a life without canine or feline or even equine companionship is unfathomable. Maggie brought us great joy and, admittedly, many moments of frustration. She was not the easiest dog in the world, but I suspect that she will prove the most memorable, the one I will think of when I am facing my own end.

I am attaching a picture of Maggie to this post that captures her very best qualities: fearlessness, curiosity, and joie de vivre. She loved sailing with Rod, and I recall many times watching her with admiration and affection as she stood on the bow of our sailboat, chest puffed out bravely and face into the wind. Even storms and high winds couldn't dampen her enthusiasm. Once we were attempting a very rough crossing from Knapp's Narrows back to Herrington Harbour, where we used to keep our sailboat. The skies opened and water pelted down, while waves washed over the bow. Maggie, cold and damp, stayed close to my feet in the cockpit but never once complained or showed fear. She was that kind of dog.

It's been three weeks, but we continue to miss Maggie horribly. Sometimes I think I glimpse her shape when I look up suddenly from my laptop or a book--only to be heartbroken when I remember she is indeed gone. Eventually we will get another dog, but now we are mourning, the very least we can do to honor this creature who gave us so much and who loved Rod with the sort of devotion we humans can rarely muster.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Wishful Drinking


It was with some trepidation that I went back in September to see Carrie Fisher in Wishful Drinking, her one-woman show. I'm not much for memoirs, especially those of the "Mommy Dearest" or "kiss and tell" mode. Fisher, though, acquitted herself well for the most part. She knows how to play to an audience, and she uses irony, self-deprecation, and caustic one-liners to prevent the material from descending into maudlin self-pity. Some sections are very funny indeed, such as her attempt to reconstruct a "Hollywood Family Tree" that rivals the Houses of York and Lancaster. The stories about George Lucas and the filming of Star Wars were true crowd pleasers. I liked too her humorous and surprisingly generous assessment of her famous parents, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, even though their parenting skills were clearly paltry at best.

I was less entertained by the long, long account of shock therapy treatment. Fisher has battled addiction, depression, and various demons since adolescence, and while I felt compassion for her plight, I also experienced some discomfort with the florid details. Perhaps this unease arises from my own upbringing, with the concomitant insistence that one doesn't air dirty laundry--especially not with strangers--an attitude that seems nothing short of antediluvian these days.

I couldn't help but wonder, though, as I listened to Fisher recount the pills, booze, blackouts, and binges, if a little reticence might not be in order. What purpose do these sorts of revelations serve? Are we supposed to celebrate Fisher as a survivor (to use that popular term)? By her own admission, she consistently exercised poor judgment; what, then, is to admire--that she managed evade death or derangement despite her frequent attempts at self-annihilation? This hardly seems heroic to me, especially given Fisher's extraordinarily privileged upbringing and subsequent opportunities. Alternatively, Fisher could be attempting to shock us with her oftentimes hilarious but nonetheless disconcerting story of despair and degradation, but in this age of "misery memoirs," with their accompanying tales of domestic horror, her narrative is hardly singular. The final and most disturbing possibility is that Fisher's revelations function as a kind of therapy, a way for her to exorcise demons. If so, I'm not sure the audience is proving sufficiently palliative. At points during the performance, my friend and I found ourselves wondering if Fisher was, well, drunk or stoned (not to put a fine point on it). She slurred words, forgot anecdotes, and didn't seem entirely in control, which in turn made us even more uncomfortable.

As we left the theatre, I reflected (yet again) on why I so dislike and rarely attend this kind of theatre: I want live performance to rock my world. I want to be enthralled, challenged, enraged, provoked, even pushed around a bit. I'll happily settle for the pure entertainment of slick plots, great show tunes, and snappy dialogue. But I don't want to walk out feeling as though I've just been through a live, slightly upmarket version of what I can see on nearly any major television network.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Good News about Beau


First, the good news: the melanoma removed from beneath Beau's tail is not invasive, nor is the white plaque in his left ear cancerous. I am very relieved. Beau drives me a little crazy sometimes, but I love him dearly and would not part with him for the world. Not yet.

Beau took the surgery with his customary equanimity (no pun intended). The folks at New Bolton thought he was the model patient and made quite a fuss when he left. I'm still marveling at the superb care New Bolton provides; truly, they are a model institution. Since his return, I've been trying to keep the wound clean--no small feat given its location--and prevent infection. Staff and friends at Southwind Farm have been wonderful in helping me. Beau, amazingly enough, doesn't seem to mind people "wiping his tush," as one friend put it. Many horses would put you through a wall for far less.

The first couple of weeks were tough; now, finally, the wound is granulating and starting to dry up. Tomorrow I might even be able to walk Beau for a few minutes. Hopefully, he will be fully rideable again in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, we're all waiting to see if the melanoma vaccine works on Beau. New Bolton is one of only two places in the U.S. that provides this treatment. I was warned that it might not work; however, I felt the chance was worth the expense. If the vaccine is successful, Beau will be protected against future melanomas; if not, he's none the worse for wear, and I'm out some money, which is always replaceable--unlike my much adored horse.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Thoughts about Spring Theatre in Washington, D.C.


After a lackluster fall, I was pleased to see several fine productions this past spring in Washington, which continues to be a first-rate town for interesting and provocative theatre. By far, the best three productions were Synetic's Romeo and Juliet, the Folger Macbeth, and The Shakespeare Theatre Company's Major Barbara.

Macbeth was a delight. Aaron Posner, who typically directs one show every season for the Folger, brought his usual flair for originality to the Scottish play. With the help of Teller (of Penn and Teller fame), he created the bloodiest Macbeth this side of Jacobean stagecraft. Banquo's ghost spews disgusting clots of blood; the three weird sisters drop glistening entrails into their cauldron; and Lady M. spontaneously bleeds from her hands during the sleepwalking scene, a sort of grotesquely hilarious stigmata. So covered in blood was the stage by the curtain call that actors were slipping all over the place. Peter Marks in his Washington Post review called the production a "popcorn Macbeth, surely as good a description as any. There were lots of smart touches too, not just magic tricks and buckets of blood. Kate Eastwood Norris, one of my favorite Washington actresses, was by far the sexiest Lady M. I've ever seen, and she used her considerable wiles to seduce Macbeth into murdering Duncan. Too often Lady Macbeth is done as a steely, cold-hearted bitch who dominates and ridicules her husband into submission. I've always found it hard to square Macbeth-the-warrior with Macbeth-the-henpecked. Norris' interpretation made sense of Macbeth's rapid capitulation: their body language conveyed the hot intensity of their relationship, and one could understand entirely why this powerful warrior would do anything, including murder, for this undulating babe. Ian Merrill Peakes did a fine job with Macbeth, displaying pathos and regret that was genuinely heartfelt, not simply recited.

I liked The Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Major Barbara just as well, but for different reasons. First, I was relieved to see a STC show that I really liked for a change; second, I loved how Ethan McSweeny's direction made me rethink the script and appreciate how Shaw's penchant for Nietzsche drives the characters and the script. Vivienne Benesch burned, wild-eyed and impassioned, with Dionysian fevor. Truly she is the counterpart to Adolphus Cusin's Apollonian professor of Greek; and their marriage signifies the happy union of opposing but complementary philosophies, both necessary to a balanced life. Too often actresses play Barbara with a reserved hauteur, making her emotional abandonment of the Salvation Army at the end of Act 2 as hard to fathom as her sudden conversion to her father's war-mongering credo at the end of the play.

Although McSweeny's was by far the most intellectual Barbara I've seen, it was also the most enjoyable, with lots of lovely physical business and superb comic timing. The opening scene between the termagant Lady Britomart and her feckless son Stephen featured an especially superb piece of stage business, with a pillow cushion functioning metonymically for the battle of wills between the generations. The set was gorgeous and put to good use by McSweeney and his actors; happily, he avoided the fussiness of many contemporary directors: give them a revolve and they use it ad nauseum! All the performances sparkled, and the actors did justice to Shaw's quicksilver dialogue. The actor playing Stephen overdid his performance a bit, the one flaw in an otherwise superlative production.

As good as these shows were, they simply could not compete with Synetic's Romeo and Juliet. For good reason, this brilliant, truly innovative company blew everyone else out of the water this year at the Helen Hayes Awards. Another entry in their series of "silent" adaptations of Shakespeare, this dance- and movement-based version boiled down the story to 55 minutes of intense, explosive kinesis. Tired as I am of the play, I loved every moment of Synetic's version. Paata Tsikurishvili, the brilliant Georgian artistic director, went for an especially bleak interpretation, surrounding his young lovers with cogs and wheels (largely formed by bodies) as they are ground up by the blood feud between the families. The unremitting electronic score additionally propelled the action forward, making for an exhilarating, compressed dramatic action that sped toward its catastrophic conclusion. I really can't get enough of this talented company, and their achievements are all the more impressive given how they started from scratch a few years ago. I'm pleased to see they're finally getting some decent funding.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The New Bolton Center


I've concluded that equines get better care these days in the U.S. than humans, if the New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania is any indication. Barbaro went there for good reason: the care and professionalism is unparalleled.

Laurie and I arrived, our respective mounts in tow, to be greeted by a wonderfully efficient and kind staff. No waiting for paperwork; no pause for admission: our forms were already prepared and waiting to be signed, while two kind young women stood by with lead ropes. Beau and Tommy were escorted to their immaculate stalls, heaped high with fresh straw, and their culinary preferences recorded. Did Beau want orchard grass hay or a mix of timothy and orchard? Would the occasional flake of alfafa mix be alright? It was not the usual alfafa, mind you, but a special import from the west. "The horses love it," I was told. "They gobble it down like Godiva chocolates." In the meantime, a perky third-year resident fluttered around Beau, taking his vitals and inspecting him closely.

Once the horses were settled, Laurie and I went to clean up from our long, hot trip before meeting with Dr. Busschers, the energetic Dutch surgeon overseeing Beau and Tommy. Patient and thorough, she examined both horses and talked through their respective treatments with us. She promised to call me immediately after Beau's surgery, and this morning she proved as good as her word, explaining the results and subsequent follow-up care.  These days I'm lucky if a M.D. returns my call within a week--and only if I leave countless e-mails and voice messages.

Little things caught my attention, from the area where we could leave the horse trailer to the trash bins for the content of muck buckets. Another (cute British) resident advised us not to eat at the cafeteria because of the "mean" chef. We took his recommendation and dined at a bistro up the road to very happy results.

On the way back, Laurie decided it was high time I learn how to drive a truck and horse box. She handed me the keys and sat back, ready to relax on the way home (the horse box comes later). So here we were, two middle-aged broads in a big-ass Ford truck, blasting country western while we tooled down highway 95 back to Maryland. I loved every minute of it.

As the picture shows, all I need is a beer and a hound dog by my side.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Mortality of Pets


Unbelievably, Maggie is still with us--and thriving.  Rod and I never expected her to make it past July, much into September.  Her bladder is still compromised but improved: she makes it through the night and doesn't need to wear a diaper unless we're gone for several hours.  Best of all, she's enjoying what's left of her life.  Mags cavorts outside with Chloe, cuddles with us in the morning, and barks indignantly at the crows, her particular nemesis (nemeses?). She gobbles her meals greedily and looks at me expectantly when I'm cooking, knowing full well that eventually a little taste of something will come her way.  From a dog's perspective, life is pretty good.

Several months ago, I questioned Rod's sanity in giving chemotherapy to a pet, a much-loved pet, mind you, but still a pet.  I have since questioned my views.  If Maggie lives until Christmas, we will have extended her life by 9-10 months, nearly 6 years in human terms.  She has endured some discomfort during that time, but overall the quality of her life has been pretty good.  The extra time has given Rod a chance to come to terms with Maggie's impending end.

If it had been my choice, I'm still not sure I would have opted for chemotherapy. Tomorrow I trailer Beau up to New Bolton to have a melanoma under his tail removed.  It's ulcerating and could become infected.  There's also a chance it will be malignant. 80% of grey horses have melanomas by the age of 15, a strange genetic abnormality; most are benign, if sometimes unsightly.  In some instances, though, a small, harmless black bump will grow exponentially, exploding into a huge, cancerous mass.  Further testing usually reveals cancer spreading through internal organs.  

Beau seems his usual cantankerous self to me, but I am bracing for the worst: what was a little knob has suddenly morphed into an oozy, repellant mass.  I have already decided that if the melanoma is malignant and has already spread (or is about to spread), I will have New Bolton put him down before pain sets in.  Brutally, disposing of a horse is quite a different matter from euthanizing a cat or dog: the logistics of burying, rendering, or cremating an 1100 pound animal requires forethought, planning, and considerable expense.  New Bolton is set up to euthanize large animals in a humane manner.  There's nothing I can do if Beau's melanoma has metastasized; unlike Maggie's lymphoma, it cannot be treated with chemotherapy.  Even if treatment were an option, I would not subject Beau to the regimen.

So I hope for the best.  Losing one of our pets to cancer is bad enough; possibly losing two out of three is just wrenching.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Love Affair is Over


I am about to say the unsayable: Tom Stoppard needs to hang up his pen, throw out his quill, break his pencil, or electrocute his laptop. Put another way, his time these days would be better spent cruising Facebook than writing plays.

You have no idea how much it pains me to say this (and no bad puns on my name please--I've heard them all). I discovered Stoppard in the seventies when I was a student at University College London. One day I caught a matinee of Jumpers starring Michael Hordern and Diana Rigg at the National Theatre. I was, to borrow Rod's colonialism, "gobsmacked." I went back to see the show two more times, so astounded was I by the intellectual play, the verbal pyrotechnics, and the forays into absurdist dramatic structure. For an American girl, brought up on a diet of Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, and musicals (with the usual odd dash of Chekhov or Aeschylus), the notion that one could pen a play that veered wildly from farce to philosophy was a revelation. Jumpers, well, jumped from the moon landing, to a murder, to a failed nightclub singer (who may or may not have committed said murder), to gymnastically adept philosophers, all the while musing on the possibility of philosophical positivism in a world of uncertainty. The National, as always, did a stellar job, and to this day I remember vividly Michael Hordern's bumbling, brilliant philosopher and Diana Rigg's singer-on-the-verge.

From that day forward I became a Stoppard groupie, and it was true, deep, unshakeable love: it outlasted husbands, family members, and pets. For thirty years I worshipped this man and saw every production and read every play. When I glimpsed him several years ago in a small Indian restaurant in South Kensington (dining with then squeeze, Felicity Kendall), I just about squealed and did a little dance right on the spot. Stoppard affected me the way that Mick Jagger did other women of my generation. Let me put it this way: I would have run off with the guy in a nanosecond, throwing sanity and reputation to the wind.

The first sign that my ardor had cooled came last year when I saw The Coast of Utopia at the Lincoln Center in NYC. Yes, the acting was stellar and Billy Crudup et al. were fabulous, no doubt about it. The script? Unwieldy and ponderous, it sounded like something penned by a recent grad from the Yale School of Drama wanting to show off how much he had read about the philosophical origins of the Russian Revolution.  It was a dissertation in the making, not a dramatic trilogy.

I just read Rock and Roll, and while it isn't as hopelessly baggy as The Coast of Utopia, the play displays many of the same problems. Now Stoppard has never been a master of tight dramatic structure, and his ideas often exceed the limits of his form; still, one was able to forgive the occasional digression or weak ending since Stoppard, even when he stumbled, was still so much better than everyone else. There's a difference, however, between weak moments in an otherwise brilliant script and a play that just doesn't add up to much. I'm not actually sure what Rock and Roll is about. As with Utopia, Stoppard seems to have done so much reading (this time, Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel) that it's completely overwhelmed his imagination, not to mention any sense of creative discipline.  Despite the inherent pathos of the material--the '68 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia--I didn't give a damn about the characters or their plight. The episodic structure, the leaps in time, the bittiness of the action doesn't give the reader (or spectator) the chance to settle in and think about these people.  And the old Stoppard linguistic magic, that verbal sleight-of-hand, is nowhere apparent, a criticism of Utopia as well.

Unless the old boy finds his mojo, I guess the affair is over.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Mr. Beau's Requests and Requirements


Mr. Beau has a mighty long list of preferences, all of which he makes perfectly known. He is nothing if not opinionated, as several trainers have pointed out. After four years together, I know him as well as one does a spouse; and, frankly, I wouldn't put up with those kinds of persnickedy demands from a partner. Then again, women are notoriously inconsistent when it comes to horses and husbands--and you don't have to think very hard to figure out which one comes out ahead.

Some of the little desires I find quite charming, a sign of Beau's individuality. He likes carrots but not apples; tepid but not cold water; chin but not ear rubs; and massages on his left but not his right flank. After we ride, especially if Beau has taken good care of me, he likes his efforts to be acknowledged with lots of pats, hugs, and endearments. After I dismount, Beau lowers his head to bring his ear near my mouth so he can hear me murmur loving inanities. His eyes droop to half-masts and his lower lip goes all blubbery, indicating pure pleasure at my sweet talk. Sometimes he simply tucks his nose under my arm and sighs contentedly.

Less charming are the days when Beau is just full of blue meanies. Sometimes it's the weather--his majesty doesn't like heat and humidity--sometimes it's just life. Horses, like people, have moods, and I'm sure Beau's pasture mates infuriate him every bit as much as my academic colleagues sometimes annoy me. When the blue meanies hit, Beau gets sullen and grumpy, refusing to go forward and ignoring my leg aids. On trails, he'll bolt ahead or, if I ask for a quicker pace, slow to a snail's pace. Worst of all is when we're trying to do flat work or have a lesson. "Get that horse to move forward," yells the instructor, or "put some leg on that horse" (usually when my legs are close to numb from exertion). I console myself with the thought that she just doesn't understand my complicated horse.

One day an instructor, exasperated with both Beau and me, launched into a lecture on the differences between requests and requirements.

"He requires," she explained none too patiently, "food, water, medicine, and protection from the elements. Everything else is a request, which you are not obligated to honor."

"Try telling him that," was my defeated reply.

I was not a little heartened two weeks later when this same instructor explained how she had backed off during a training session because Beau wasn't quite in the mood. I was about to refer to her earlier lecture but thought better of it. Clearly, yet another human had fallen victim to Beau's outlook on life, which sees requests and requirements as one and the same.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Charleston


For my birthday dinner--and do not, dear reader, inquire which one--Rod took me to Charleston in Baltimore. The flagship of Cindy Wolf's impressive array of Baltimore restaurants, which include Petit Louis, Cinghiale, and Pazo, it is well known for a superlative tasting menu and excellent cellar.

We went with high expectations, and we were not disappointed. Service was superb, a perfect blend of formality and friendliness. Food was exquisitely presented. I was especially taken with a goat cheese flan and grilled pheasant breast on a crispy corn cake. Many of the dishes are inspired by the time Cindy Wolf spent cooking and refining low-country cuisine in the Charleston area, as evidenced by the corn cake or the addition of grilled vidalia onion. Desert was equally impressive: Rod indulged in a chocolate bombe, while I greedily consumed a buttery fruit tart.

The ambiance of Charleston, the attention to detail, and the excellent cuisine made for a lovely birthday dinner except . . .

I think I came down with food poisoning. Awakened at 3:00 a.m. with, to put it politely, gastrointestinal upset, I spent the subsequent twelve hours doubled over in bed or rushing to the bathroom. I sent an e-mail to Charleston, but, so far, no one has responded. On Saturday, when fetching my weekly bag of groceries from our CSA, I chatted with Craig about the unpleasant aftermath of my birthday dinner. He suspected the pheasant which, as he pointed out, is only harvested in fall and therefore had most likely been sitting in the walk-in freezer for eight or nine months. Of course, I have no way of knowing what made me sick at Charleston, but I am disappointed that a restaurant of this calibre has not followed up on a likely case of food poisoning.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Jalapenos


Finally, a good mid-priced restaurant in Annapolis!

Some women at the local knitting shop (where I am spending far too much money these days) told me to try Jalapenos in the Riva Road shopping center. I was skeptical, given that other recommendations haven't panned out. Either I'm incredibly fussy or most people have indifferent palates--I'm not sure which.

A week ago, on a steamy Friday night, we decided to forego cooking for a meal out, and so we ventured to Jalapenos. The entrance isn't promising--the restaurant is in a strip mall, sandwiched between other businesses--but the handsome interior belies that first impression.  I'm delighted to say that the food was very good, reasonably priced, and beautifully presented. 

Our waiter was delightful, bantering with us in Spanish and explaining various dishes. When Rod questioned the heat index of a chicken mole, he promptly brought a sample from the kitchen. Amused that Rod didn't consider it sufficiently spicy, he instructed the kitchen to make it muy caliente. I had one of the specials, a piece of tuna marinated in olive oil and lightly grilled. Presented on a bed of greens, it was the perfect dish for a hot summer evening. Rod's flan was equally tasty, rich and dense with a hint of mango on top.

My margarita was a little heavy on triple sec, giving it an unpleasantly sweet, syrupy flavor; otherwise, everything was first rate. We're delighted to have finally found a good restaurant that is close to the house and won't break the bank. Bravo, Jalapenos!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Crazy Diva Farriers


I have concluded that craziness is a prerequisite for being a farrier.

I just lost my farrier of the last nine months, a man I will simply identify as #2. A little bantam cock of a guy, he swaggered and talked a good line. Addicted to neo-con talk radio, he assailed us with his extremist right-wing views. Radio blaring, voices screaming, and tongs hammering: this is the auditory experience I came to expect from #2.

Generally #2 did a good job on my horse's feet except for the time he hot-nailed Beau. I was assured that even the best of farriers sometimes miss, so I chalked it up to bad luck. Beau had a bit of an abscess, but got over it soon enough. I didn't appreciate the vet bill resulting from #2's mistake, nor did he offer to help defray the additional costs. This didn't seem quite right to me, but, again, I was told by knowledgeable horse people to suck it in, and so I did.

#2 dumped me and Mr. Beau last week, leaving a note to the effect that my horse had put him in a dangerous position where he could have been hurt. I'm still puzzling over that statement. First, Beau is in cross-ties, so just how mobile (and therefore dangerous) can he be? Second--and more to the point--previous farriers and vets have all commented on Beau's easy-going and gentlemanly behavior. He normally stands stock still. Jim Lewis, my vet, calls Beau "the saint" and never ceases to marvel at his docility, no matter how uncomfortable the medical procedure. If Beau did misbehave, then I'm suspicious of #2's handling of this normally cooperative creature.

I have since learned that #2 left a similar missive for a woman at another barn two miles down the road. The likelihood that both of our horses suddenly chose this moment to behave badly is, to put it mildly, slim. The weather is stinking hot and humid, and most of the horses look half-dead. July and August in the greater Washington area is not conducive to frisky, mischievous behavior. #2 also won't return the messages left by another woman at my barn, nor did he indicate a date for a return visit. Do I smell I rat?

I suspect that #2 simply doesn't want to drive down to Damascus any longer given the cost of gas. He has a huge truck and hauls an enormous trailer, replete with forge and heavy instruments. I'd be surprised if he gets 5 miles a gallon. Why not simply say so? Why leave bizarre notes about horses behaving badly?

#2's odd manner of jettisoning clients is rivaled by the disappearing act of #1, a farrier whose brilliance was matched only by his equal strangeness. More interested in playing blues than shoeing horses, he handpicked clients, limiting appointments to a few each week. I was warned by my former trainer Carol that he sometimes went AWOL--he disappeared after shoeing her horse for several years--and her words proved prophetic. An appointment rolled around; I waited dutifully; and #1 never showed up. Successive calls were in vain. For whatever reason, I was expunged from his practice. Did he go on a bender? Did he throw out his back, a chronic complaint for this mercurial personality? Did he give up blacksmithing for the blues? I'll never know.

So now I gird myself to meet #3 on Sunday, a man who is reputed to practice yoga in the aisles between appointments and evidently expects his clients to hold their horses during shoeing while praising his mighty efforts.  Sigh.

I keep thinking of some women I met at a little barn down in Harwood who were so desperate to lure a particular farrier out of retirement, they plied him with gift baskets and very good single malt whiskey. As one of them remarked to me, "Farriers are the rock stars of Anne Arundel County." And, it would seem, of Montgomery County, Baltimore County, Howard County and just about everywhere else. Much more of this, and I'm going to think about attending blacksmithing school.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Reno


I'll admit upfront that I don't much like Reno. People here are mighty friendly, the skies are blue, and the humidity low, but I find this kind of barren, stark landscape soul-withering. When I drive to my brother's restaurant in Verdi, a tiny town on the outskirts of Reno, I see a landscape so spare that it might as well be lunar.

I'm not a gambler, so the casino culture that dominates downtown has little appeal. Reno lacks the high-end casinos and Disney-like fantasia of Las Vegas: it's far more down-market. And there's not much to do outside of gambling. If you're a skier, the very nice slopes around Lake Tahoe beckon, and other outdoor sports, such as biking or skateboarding, are eminently doable part of the year. Otherwise, there's not much here: a small, mediocre museum; a so-so branch of the state university; and the occasional road show floating through town.

I come once a year solely to see my mother and one of my brothers. I stay at the Peppermill Casino and Hotel, largely out of habit. I suspect they aren't entirely happy to see me return, given how little money I spend. I don't like gambling--I don't see the point--and I don't like casinos. In Reno, though, your only options are sleazy motels or casinos, so I pick the latter.

I'm happy to see that the Peppermill has replaced the ghastly orange-and-purple decor from the 80s (sort of New Orleans whorehouse meets psychedelia) with what they're dubbing a "Tuscan" theme. It's a huge improvement: my room is done in cool whites and beiges with subtle splashes of gold. I could do without the gilt, but it is, after all, a casino. One can only hope for so much.

To the credit of this establishment, they run things very well. The staff are unfailingly polite and helpful; rooms are immaculate; and food is surprisingly good. Tonight my mother and I will eat at Romanza's, an Italian restaurant that in the past has done very well by us. I don't get the appeal of squandering hard earned money on slot machines or blackjack, but I'm clearly in the minority. The array of visitors is quite astonishing, ranging from older couples to families with children in tow. One sees representatives from every ethnicity and class. Personally, I'd rather be in Southern France, with a nice glass of bordeaux and a good book, but I suppose that's why I ended up in a university: my tastes are rather rarefied.

So while the Peppermill has certainly done a nice job of taking care of their customers, I will be very happy to leave Reno and casino culture behind tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Russian River


As part of my continued journey down memory lane, Alex and I went to the Russian River, another site of happy reminiscences. My great uncle and aunt, who put up with me for long stretches every summer, owned a cabin not far from Guerneville. My holidays with them fell into a predictable pattern of staying in the city during the week and then, on Friday, driving 90 minutes north on Highway 101. On the way, Hank and I would stop off at an ice cream parlor in Santa Rosa. Always I would deliberate carefully, but inevitably I would order rum raisin, my very favorite. I suspect the dash of rum seemed the height of sophistication to my thirteen-year-old palate.

Our long weekends consisted of lazing around the cabin and reading; looking at the stars through Hank's telescope, one of his few indulgences; and floating down the river in inner tubes. Temperatures easily run fifteen degrees higher than in the city, a fact I forgot one summer. I ended up with a sunburn so bad that I ran a high fever and nearly ended up in an ER. This excruciating experience made me swear off tanning subsequently and taught me to cover my fair skin, no small feat for an adolescent growing up in Southern California. From that summer onward, I was resigned to life as a pasty-faced person.

Overall, I was struck by the relative lack of development in the area, something entirely unexpected. While the proliferation of ugly, largely frangible, tract homes and malls have ruined the Peninsula and blighted former farm land in what is now Silicon Valley, the same has not happened north of the city. On Saturday when we hiked through Muir Woods and then lunched in Sausalito, I was startled to see that Marin County looked unchanged. The same is true for areas further north, as one drives up 101 through Tiburon, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa. Huge swaths of land remain untouched, and farms (many quite neglected) dot the landscape. As for the Russian River itself, the most notable change is the profusion of wineries and vineyards everywhere; if anything, cultivation has beautified the area.

If Healdsburg is any indication, the small, sleepy towns that once typified the Russian River have grown nicely. I remember in my youth being hard pressed to find a decent restaurant. Occasionally we went into Occidental to eat at a family-style restaurant where the Italian-American waiters plunked down heaping bowls of pasta on picnic-style tables. The food was hearty and plentiful but hardly gourmet. With the influx of wineries and vino-tourism, that has, of course, all changed. Excellent brasseries and cafes are everywhere. We had lunch at Bistro Ralph, one of the places recommended to us, and we were not disappointed. Our good-natured waiter, a friendly bear of a guy, gave us excellent service, and food came piping hot out of the kitchen. Alex had a very good salad; I had a superb pasta with smoked chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, and a fennel cream sauce. Our waiter suggested we try the strawberry shortcake for dessert. I hesitated since I do a pretty mean shortcake myself, but caved at his urging. I grudgingly admit this shortcake trumps what I make at home, something that happens too rarely (and one of the reasons I rarely order dessert in restaurants--frankly, I usually do better).

Invigorated by the lunch, Alex and I spent the rest of the afternoon, map in hand, driving to various wineries. We only got through five and there must be at least fifty now in the area. By far, Rosenblum was our favorite. A brilliant winery, they do fabulous reds and whites, in addition to extraordinary dessert wines. I put together a case and arranged for shipping to some friends in Virginia since we're not allowed to receive wine across state lines in Maryland, a barbaric law. Among my finds at Rosenblum is a dessert wine that smacks of chocolate and coconut: it's like drinking an exquisite version of an Almond Joy bar. Unfortunately, none of the other wineries we visited came close to Rosenblum. Several produced wines that left a funny metallic taste on the tongue, something Alex noticed as well. We liked the sparkling wines at J Winery--the rose is especially nice--but I wasn't sufficiently convinced as to order another case. 

I've noticed that people working in wineries are, without exception, delightful. This appears to be a universal phenomenon, if my experiences in France, Italy, and South Africa are any indication. I suspect the lifestyle is largely responsible. Good wines flourish in beautiful surroundings and great climates, so one gets to live in paradise and pour wine for happy, eager customers. True to form, we met some lovely folks on our little tour. The man who helped us at Rosenblum had a superb palate, and I ended up purchasing nearly everything he poured for us. The woman who assisted us at J Wineries turned out to be a graduate from AU. She was so delighted to encounter an AU professor that she poured us samples well beyond the requisite four wines covered by our tasting fee.

At the end of the day, sated and tired, we drove back into the city. As we approached my hotel, I became teary at the prospect of parting from my adored and adorable son (who was the consummate host and gentleman throughout my stay). We had a tearful parting and, crying lightly, I went into the hotel only to be dragooned by a group of Aussies who were dismayed at my discomfiture. I have to say there's nothing like drinking with a bunch of blokes from down under to cheer one up.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

'Tis Pity She's a Whore


Even by Jacobean standards, John Ford's plays are wonderfully strange. Plots twist and coil, as revenge piles upon revenge; siblings lust after each other; and characters spontaneously expire, keeling over from shock or, even weirder, willing themselves to die, as occurs with Calantha in The Broken Heart (1625?).  She appoints an heir, sits down on her throne, and then painstakingly describes her death as it occurs.  As I said, this is strange stuff--and I love it!

Thus it was with great eagerness that I accompanied Alex to see 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (1633) at American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.).  The play is rarely staged, and A.C.T. used to have a fine reputation. I haven't seen one of their shows in twenty years, so this was a particular treat.

Overall, I was quite pleased.  We saw a preview, so I fully expect the minor problems with pacing, tech, and entrance cues will vanish once the production gets further into the run.  The director, Carey Perloff, made some fascinating choices.  She hired the cellist and singer Bonfire Madigan Shive (who does "punk chamber music") to accompany the show with haunting melodies and otherworldly moans and screams, a terrific effect. Shive is fully visible throughout the performance, sitting aloft on a raised platform integrated into the set. I liked too that Perloff didn't update the script by transposing it to another period. She left language intact, trusting her audience's comprehension. 

The set is semi-industrial, as seems to be the fashion right now in staging Shakespeare and Elizabethan/Jacobean plays, but for the most part it worked.  A strange series of tubes hung in a cluster from the ceiling, and tiny glass balls dotted fishing line that was also suspended throughout the space.  At first, I didn't get their significance; then I realized that Perloff and the designer, Walt Spangler, were giving us visual metaphors for blood, with the tubes signifying arteries running to the heart and the glass balls standing in for corpuscles.  These visual references are obscure but smart: blood is everywhere in 'Tis Pity, literally and figuratively, from the bodies littering the stage to the "hot blood" inflaming the incestuous siblings.

Overall, I thought the women were stronger than the men. Susan Gibney is simply fabulous as Hippolita, the sexy, wayward wife who dispatches her husband (or so she thinks) for her lover, only to have him dump her for another woman. Rene Augesen brings a complexity to Arabella, the incestuous sister, that I never saw when reading the play. While Michael Hayden does a fine job as Giovanni, the incestuous brother, he has an unfortunate tendency to swallow words at moments of high passion. His gradual descent into madness, though, is absolutely believable. I wish some of the other men were as strong. Steven Anthony Jones is downright embarrassing as the friar; Michael Fajardo phones in his performance as Soranzo; and Gregory Wallace is painfully bad as Bergetto, the foolish nephew of a wealthy citizen. I think Anthony Fusco will improve as Vasques. He strengthened as the performance progressed, always a good sign. I don't have much hope for the others.

I was pleased to see A.C.T. still going strong after nearly 45 years. It's a shame that this very smart production will just miss being superlative because of several weak men in the cast.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Muir Woods and Sausalito


It has been many a year since I last hiked in Muir Woods, that stunning national park just over the Golden Gate Bridge.  This morning Alex and I spent a couple of hours walking along manicured paths and taking in the redwoods.  I had forgotten how much I love the smell of eucalyptus trees.  I also forgot how wildflowers perfume the air in California. The weather was perfect: low seventies with little humidity.  One could not ask for a better day.

Later we drove to Sausalito for lunch.  Alex recommended Fish, a casual eatery overlooking the marina.  Alex had a sandwich with crab rolls; I had a crab louis salad, a dish I always ordered when I visited SF in my youth. Both were excellent.

Later we hiked into town, where I was sorry to see that the once chic shops have been replaced by tacky tourist joints. Unfortunately, the Fisherman's Wharf syndrome has spilled over to other parts of the Bay area. Around 3.00, we found a bar where we could watch Big Brown run the Belmont. I knew immediately that something was wrong: BB's gait looked nothing like his customarily easy, loping gallop, and I'm happy his jockey pulled him up, perhaps preventing a tragedy like the one that doomed poor Eight Belles. Big Brown didn't win the Triple Crown--but he's still alive.

Tonight we're seeing John Ford's wonderfully strange Jacobean play, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore at American Conservatory Theatre.  I haven't been to ACT for years--I used to go regularly with Hank and Ruth--and I'm curious to see how this classic repertory company has fared. Aside from ACT and Berkeley Rep, there's little serious theatre in San Francisco. It's telling that Beach Blanket Babylon, now in its 34th year, has outlasted every other form of drama.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Impressions of San Francisco,


Let me preface this post by saying that I have happy memories of San Francisco that go back many years to my childhood and adolescence.  I used to spend part of my summer with a great uncle and aunt in this city, and they were partially responsible for who I am today.  Uncle Hank regularly shipped me boxes of books; Aunt Ruth taught me how to dress and comport myself. They took me to theatre and concerts, and they shaped my politics, opposing my father's cowboy conservatism with classic Marxist materialism.  

I have through the years made periodic trips to SF, but it has been a long time since I've explored the city at a leisurely pace.  Here to visit my son Alex, I've had a chance to wander neighborhoods, visit museums, and eat out.  

Some moments have charmed: the man playing the theme to the Godfather on his sax in Union Square; the AIDS Memorial in Golden Gate Park; the tough old Chinese ladies who still elbow one aside; the adult entertainment store on Market Street that blares classical music from loudspeakers (Tschaikovsky as I walked past); the beatific old black man blessing passerbys (when he wasn't ogling attractive girls); the grotesquely fat seagull that has apparently taken up permanent residence outside the museum cafe in Golden Gate Park.

And there have been some delights.  I am absolutely enchanted with the Asian Art Museum, a superb collection in a beautifully retrofitted building.  I loved everything about the museum, from the smart commentary to the interactive touch screens. The galleries are light and airy, and the objects displayed carefully.  I also like how cross-cultural currents are underscored throughout. This is exactly what a museum should be: intelligent and aesthetically pleasing. Even the museum cafe defied expectations, serving fresh, impeccably prepared food at reasonable prices. I had planned on spending no more than two hours at the Asian Art Museum; I ended up staying most of the day.

I have, thanks to Alex, discovered the pleasures of San Francisco's hip neighborhood bars. One night we went to Absinthe, where I had an odd but refreshing cocktail with a very complicated name I cannot recall; this afternoon we stopped at Alembic in the Haight, where I had my first Pisco Sour.  I am a complete convert to this delightful drink.  

For the most part, food has been good. We ate on Wednesday night at Citizen Cake in Hayes Valley and had a fine meal. Although they are known primarily for unusual desserts, Citizen Cake's limited dinner menu features some real delights. Alex had very good braised pork, while I had local cod on vegetables infused with ginger and lime.  Dinner the following night at Zazil, located in the quite grand Westfield Mall on Market Street was okay, not great: my braised pork (a popular dish here!) was too salty; Alex didn't like the sauce on his fish. I have better hopes for a seafood restaurant we're trying in Sausalito tomorrow.

Increasingly, however, I understand why Alex doesn't enjoy day-to-day life here.  Without a doubt, San Francisco is scenic and charming, but there's little to do outside of the 20-something hipster culture that dominates the city. Good theatre is scarce, and the opera is horrifically expensive. Museums, with the exception of the Asian Art, are so-so.  Little works.  We waited nearly 50 minutes for a bus that supposedly runs every 10 minutes, an all too common occurrence I am told. BART has so few stations as to be almost useless.  The streets are dirty, some smelling like urinals. Petty crime is rife. This afternoon alone we were approached by a gang of youths in Golden Gate Park trying to sell us drugs; then we saw a woman lose her wallet to a nimble-fingered thief as she boarded the bus. Sadly, banks in tourist areas, such as Union Square, post security guards next to ATM's. And homeless people are everywhere, pushing carts overflowing with their possessions. Most mind their own business, but the schizophrenics and druggies are unnerving. I found myself walking briskly back to my hotel and hugging my purse. This is not the San Francisco I remember.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Shopping and Eating Orgy


My last two days in Pasadena whirled by in a carousel of food and clothes, thanks to the goodly ministrations of Kathie, who has a genius for ferreting out charming little boutiques. I've fallen into the habit over the past four years of shopping almost exclusively on holiday. What little disposable time I have during my normal workaday life goes to sports, theatre outings, and entertaining, with nary a minute left over for anything else. I also lack the patience to try on clothes and sort through racks: I'm in work mode, powering through my day and trying desperately to conserve enough energy to ride my horse in the afternoon or mark papers later that night. Stumbling through a mall is the furthest thing from my mind, even on weekends, which, alas, have become extensions of the work week.

When I travel, however, the relaxed pace mellows me sufficiently to browse and sample various garments. I like too that I find more daring fashions outside of Washington, a notoriously staid city. Last summer in Paris, for instance, I came upon a couple of charming skirts, the one a riot of Provencal colors, the other a ribbony swirl of flounces in more subdued grays and taupe. Neither was the sort of thing I would normally pull off the rack, but the very good French saleslady insisted I try them on to happy results.

International attitudes among saleswomen vary greatly, another source of pleasure (and occasional bemusement). French saleswomen are universally helpful and refreshingly blunt. At one shop in Paris, the saleslady blocked my progress to a fitting room and pulled a couple of items out of my hands, clucking at me disapprovingly. 

Russian saleswomen trump every other nationality when it comes to mercantile brusqueness. They also have an uncanny ability to sniff out black market knockoffs, a topic deserving of a separate post. Several years ago I wandered into a shop in St. Petersburg with my friend Elena, hoping to get ideas for a coat my darling husband was having made for me. The two salesgirls, cigarettes hanging from their mouths, watched contemptuously as I tried on a succession of fur jackets. I liked a sheared grey number, but one of the girls suddenly waved her hand dismissively, scolding me in Russian and gesturing toward my face. Bewildered, I turn to Elena for translation. It appeared the grey made me look sallow (which was probably right). The salesgirl then ordered me to another shop down the street: "Nothing here looks good on you." So much for post-Glastnov capitalism.

My two-day shopping orgy in Pasadena with Kathie resulted in nothing that inadvertently hilarious, but I did end up buying a smart pair of linen trousers and several tops, mostly casual. I indulged in one designer piece, the sort of thing one can pair with jeans or nicely tailored pants. Kathie has an impeccable eye for clothing, as she does for interior design. She's one of those people blessed with damn good taste and superb organizational skills. I've decided she should run my life.

We punctuated our shopping expeditions with very good lunches and dinners. On Monday we had a long leisurely lunch at Saladang Song, a tasty Thai restaurant in Pasadena. Later that afternoon we made our way to an outdoor mall that just opened in Glendale called Americana, developed by the same guy who did the Grove in Culver City. Again, we wandered through shops before collapsing at a Mexican restaurant with outdoor seating. Fortified with drinks and appetizers, we watched the throngs promenade lazily in the perfect Southern California weather: families with young children; well-heeled 50- and 60-somethings; and teenagers armed with credit cards and hopping hormones. I liked the ambiance, the leisurely pace of it all.

On Tuesday, we indulged in yet more shopping, breaking up our descent into abject materialism with a stopover at the Huntington Library, where I saw a chum and met the delightful old lady who is the subject of a biography Kathie is writing. This woman, a famous dancer between the wars, still at the age of 95 goes to the Huntington daily to work on her own project. She's quite extraordinary.  We lunched at nearby Nicole's Cafe, a brilliant little eatery featuring light fare and superb pastries (or so I am told). Alarmed by my expanding waistline, I have momentarily put desserts and snacks on hold. Dinner at Celastino's later that night was also excellent. Bob and I had delicious homemade pastas; Kathie had veal Milanese (a tad overdone).

On Wednesday I boarded my flight to San Francisco with mixed emotions. Sorry to leave L.A. and my friends behind, I was nonetheless eager to see my son Alex.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Sacred and the Profane


Sunday in LA defied my expectations: the church service I attended in Hollywood with friends turned out to be far more thought-provoking and aesthetically satisfying than the theatre performance I saw (also in Hollywood) later that night.

I met up with Kathie and Bob, close friends originally from Georgetown who relocated to LA four years ago so Bob could pick up the threads of his acting career. Years ago Bob was a professional actor in DC, working at Arena Stage and Olney, landing roles in films, and building a nice resume. Acting gigs, however, do not pay school fees, nor do they feather the nest except in the rarest of instances. Bob, now comfortably retired, can pick up projects while soaking up rays in L.A. It's quite a nice life.

These generous souls are hosting me for several days. We met up on Sunday morning at Ecclesia, a three-year old church based at the Pacific Theatre, a grand art deco building from the thirties, on Hollywood Blvd. The service is a strange amalgamation of early church egalitarianism, liberation theology, traditional liturgy, and evangelical fervor--all held together with excellent rock music and slick Power Point slides. The congregants are ethnically diverse but largely young and hip, many working in Hollywood. One glimpses Oscar nominees among the wannabes, but in typical LA fashion, everyone is cool with it. I was impressed by the church's commitment to a non-hierarchical structure, with congregants fully involved in the service. The church pushes its members to pledge time and risk safety in doing outreach. A group had just left for Africa; another was about to depart for Burma. The church is especially keen on helping homeless people on their doorstep in Hollywood, and I was also pleased they are targeting the grim issue of sex slavery.

Ecclesia has thought carefully about their policy on outreach. They provide support to indigenous, well-established groups so as not to come off as the outsiders bringing money and Western values to impoverished (and therefore culturally vulnerable) countries. The young man preaching the sermon reminded congregants that it's far easier to write out a check than help an actual individual. I was impressed and moved.

After the service, we met up with D. Paul Thomas, the associate rector of Ecclesia, his wife Debbie, and their daughter Dee at the Larchmont Grill on Melrose Avenue, the sort of place that is seemingly ubiquitous in L.A. It goes without saying that the food was spanking fresh and meticulously prepared: I had a superb salad nicoise with lightly grilled ahi tuna. The service was relaxed yet attentive. I'd kill for an equivalent eatery in Annapolis.

Halfway through lunch we were joined by D. Paul's other daughter, Shelley, who just graduated from Cal Arts with a major in international music. A mesmerizing (and striking) young woman, with intense eyes and Angeline Jolie lips, she too burns with evangelical fervor, only this time for global music. She sings Middle Eastern and South American music with her band around town; shortly she's off to Morocco to "absorb the musical rhythms," as she said, of that culture. I adored her instantly.

Over lunch we debated topics ranging from theology, to the Democratic campaign, to the direction of the music scene in L.A. It was the sort of intense, thoughtful conversation I haven't experienced in a long time and reminded me of what I so miss about L.A.: the openness and the eclecticism. D. Paul is especially fascinating, an actor who doubles as a minister. In him, one glimpses the aesthetic and the spiritual fires that probably animated ancient Greek theatre. So often one hears the truism about the affinity between performance and ritual, but in our contemporary culture, we rarely see it in action. I would like to know D. Paul further.

After nearly three hours, we drove back to Pasadena, where Kathie and Bob live. Their condo is lovely and comfortable, and they made me feel immediately at home. We rested and then hit the freeways once again that evening, heading back to Hollywood for a benefit performance at the Matrix Theartre, where Bob has done some work. The benefit in question was for Sister Cities, a new play by Colette Freedman headed for the Edinburgh Arts Festival. While I loved the notion of a play featuring all women (there are parts for five actresses), I didn't much like the script, which I found glib and unbelievable. Basically, Freedman marries Marsha Norman's unspeakably bad play, 'Night Mother to Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart--and not to good results. The premise is fairly simple: four half-sisters congregate at their mother's flat, where she has just committed suicide. Over the ensuing 70 minutes we learn that Mom, unbeknownst to three of the daughters, suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) and was assisted in her suicide by the one daughter who lived with her and therefore was privy to the horrors of the disease. While the script featured some nice comic moments, the bulk of dialogue required the half-sisters to scream epithets and accusations. No one cried; no one evinced a single emotional moment that rang true. Mainly, the characters threw off sitcom one-liners when they weren't telling each other to fuck off. This was not, to put it mildly, good writing.

I felt sorry for the actresses, who gave the script their all, but there's only so much one can do with lousy material. There were some pacing issues, mainly with missed beats at key moments of emotional reaction, but for the most part I liked the energy and physicality these talented women brought to their roles. As this was a benefit performance intended to raise money for the trip to the Edinburgh Arts Festival, I expected the plea for bucks before and after the show. I was, however, disturbed to see pitches to corporations for product placement. Is this what theatre is coming to? Let's raise the audience's consciousness about ALS while hawking toilet paper? Not good --not good at all.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

California Dreamin'


I landed in LA on Saturday after a long, but pleasantly uneventful flight. One of my closest, dearest friends--we go back to third grade--met me at LAX, along with assorted family members. Happily ensconced at their home, I visited with Carolyn's 92-year-old mother and reminisced about bygone days. The trip down memory lane continued when Julie, Carolyn's eldest daughter, graciously offered to drive me around old neighborhoods.

Julie and Carolyn wanted me to see recent additions to Loyola Marymount University (LMU), where I received undergraduate degrees in Theatre and English. The campus, always handsome, is now striking indeed. The university purchased adjacent land that used to belong to Hughes Aircraft. Once upon a time, these were empty fields where the brilliant but mad millionaire tested innovative aerial designs; now they are beautifully landscaped and feature an elegant entrance to the university, along with nicely designed buildings and dormitories. A new library is underway; an extension to the fine arts building was recently finished; and a new performing arts center is planned. The university has become quite posh.

We then drove down to Marina del Rey, where I worked back in the seventies while attending LMU. I had a cushy weekend job running the front office for a yacht sales center and marina. The owner, scion of an old California Spanish family, was charming and indulgent: when things were quiet, I could do schoolwork on his yacht, feet dangling lazily in the water. It beat the hell out of waiting tables.

Marina del Rey is hardly recognizable from what I knew: marinas everywhere, upscale eateries, and pleasantly apportioned townhouses and apartments. Indeed, even the area around Marina del Rey, which used to be quite grotty, is looking smart these days. Lincoln and Washington Blvds. were dotted with ugly strip malls and dubious liquor stores; now, new developments sparkle everywhere.

Most surprising of all is the transformation that has occurred in Culver City, where I lived for a year while attending graduate school at UCLA. In 1981 we fled to Santa Monica after being threatened by gang members. Now Culver City sports beautiful developments, and the neighborhood where I once feared for my life seems quite staid. Restaurants and theatres abound; best of all, city planners have created lovely plazas for mingling and lots of walkable space. I was very pleased.

That evening a couple of old theatre pals joined us for dinner. We spent hours catching up and recalling outrageous incidents from productions and parties; we mused aloud about former lovers and adored professors, too many, alas, now gone. There is something about early friendships that attachments made in middle-age simply can't emulate, an intensity of feeling that miraculously survives even the passing of years. I have, quite sadly, seen any number of friendships made in my thirties and forties evaporate on the filmiest of pretexts--a difference of opinion, the unthinking remark, even jealousy over career advancement or new spouses. My old friends, though, do not begrudge my little successes or my mid-life happiness, quite the contrary.

Best of all is how one easily picks up the thread of conversation. I had not seen Maryrose or Rick for ten years, yet from the moment they arrived, we chatted openly and affectionately. I've always loved that quality about Carolyn, my old friend from third grade. Sometimes we won't speak for a year or more; then one of us picks up a phone and we're off. For me, California will always be the place where I go to warm my heart at the embers of old friendships, still glowing after all this time.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Friday, May 23, 2008

Movies and Holidays


We never seem to have enough time in our workaday existence to get through an entire movie. These past few months, we could barely manage 40 minutes for an old episode of West Wing or, if we were really lucky, an hour of Foyle's War. Two hours for a film was simply out of the question. Of course, the scarcity of time also has to do with interests outside our jobs. Rod would much rather sail, and I would much rather ride than sit in front of a television. We like entertaining on weekends. And given the choice, I'll take a live performance over a film--no contest there.

With great pleasure, then, we attacked a backlog of movies while on holiday. While I enjoyed the mere act of watching films, the results also reminded me why missing out on movies no longer seems like much of a sacrifice: quality, as many critics note, has declined sharply.

Out of seven films, only one, La Vie en Rose, was really good. Marion Cotillard fully deserved her Oscar for Best Actress: it was an amazing performance and a compassionate screenplay. We also liked Charlie Wilson's War, although the satire became tiresome. Elizabeth: The Golden Years was visually sumptuous, and Cate Blanchett was eminently watchable (as always). Seeing her storm around campily as Elizabeth I was fun, if not exactly convincing. Then again, I didn't have high expectations. The Savages and The Darjeeling Express reminded me why I suffer indie movie burnout these days: both featured talented actors giving their utmost but hamstrung by third-rate scripts and precious camera work. Most disappointing of all was Atonement, a creepy amalgamation of highly aestheticized gloss and blood-strewn battlefields. I also found the ending dubious if not downright specious. The doomed lovers, both of whom expire in especially ghastly manners, nonetheless get a consolation prize of literary immortality, courtesy of Briony's pen. The swelling music and slick flashback make it clear that we are supposed to dab our eyes in appreciation. I didn't read the novel, but I assume (and hope) that McEwan's narrative voice made for a more nuanced, ironic ending.

Even though it was pleasant to have the time this week to catch up on movies, I was saddened to see that I'm not missing very much. I'd rather go for a hack on my horse.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Glories of Seafood in Chatham


Put simply, Cape Cod has some of the best seafood around. On Sunday, after fetching my stepdaughter in Provincetown, we stopped at Chatham Fish & Lobster Company, which advertises "the highest quality seafood caught daily." This time a seafood market actually lived up to its claims: the scallops and mussels were exquisitely fresh. Meg prepared a simple but tasty broth for the mussels, first sauteing fresh garlic in lots of olive oil and butter, then adding white wine, which she reduced before pouring in some water. We lightly steamed the mussels in this fragrant broth, and they were glorious. For our main course, we gorged on scallops, again prepared simply. When seafood is this good, you really don't want to mess around with cloying sauces. Meg seared the scallops in a very hot frying pan, just "kissing" the heat when flipped. Divine!

Today we had a late lunch at the Impudent Oyster, just up the road from our rental. Our jovial waitress helped with choices and poured generous glasses of wine, always a good sign. Meg and I started with a dozen Wellfleet oysters, a local specialty. They were just as good as the waitress said, slightly briny and ever so plump. The homemade horseradish was hot enough to set off the oysters without overpowering their delicacy. Rod, who refrains from raw fish, contented himself with a very good cup of Lobster bisque, followed by excellent fish and chips made with local cod. Meg ordered mussels prepared Portuguese style with lots of chopped tomatoes and thin slices of chorizo, almost like a fisherman's stew. I had a huge bowl of steamers, accompanied by superb Portuguese rolls slathered in garlic butter. Halfway through, Meg and I swapped dishes so I could gorge myself on mussels as well as clams. Unbelievably, after this descent into gluttony, we ordered dessert. Rod and I split a slice of delicious coconut key lime pie; Meg had less luck with a mediocre chocolate panna cotta.

Normally, we would have gone for a long two-hour hike to work off this absurdly indulgent lunch, but the grey skies that had threatened rain all morning opened just as we left the restaurant. So we went back to our flat and indulged in the sweetness of doing nothing, or as the Italians would say, dolce far niente.

The History Boys at the Studio Theatre


I didn't have the good fortune to see the London or Broadway productions of The History Boys, but friends verified the glowing reviews. The play didn't transfer well to the screen, but by using the original cast, the film gave some sense of the performances that so enthralled audiences and critics alike.

The new production at the Studio Theatre, while good, lacks the sheen of the original. Normally, Joy Zinoman does a crackerjack job with recent Broadway and London imports, and she has a particular genius for reworking material to sometimes startling results. Witness her brilliant production of The Invention of Love, which discovered untapped depths of feeling in the script, whereas the London production saw only Stoppard's customary linguistic brilliance. This time, though, the magic touch eluded Zinoman, and the resulting show, while enjoyable, has some real problems.

The most obvious kink, which other reviewers have noted, was the casting of Floyd King as Hector, the Pied Piper of a pedagogue with roving hands. King's portrayal contrasted sharply with that of Richard Griffiths, who premiered the role. Griffiths, a portly, jolly man with a distinctive voice, made us understand entirely why his charges would shrug off the occasional grope, as if that were a small price to pay for being in the presence of such delicious eccentricity. Zinoman's casting of King was a clear decision to go against type, and while contrary choices have served her well in the past, this time it backfired. Everything about King seemed crabbed, inward, and small, from his appearance to his delivery, and the result left one wondering what appeal he could possibly hold for his students. There were small annoyances too. King's pallid English accent fluctuated, disappearing by the end, and his customarily slurry enunciation, charming in comic roles, too often rendered him inaudible. An actor should be able to make himself heard in an intimate space like the Metheny Theatre, but King habitually swallowed the ends of words, making comprehension difficult.

Others in the cast fared better.  Simon Kendall was a softer, more hesitant Irwin than Stephen Campbell Moore in the London/Broadway production, giving his character the complexity that King also sought (but missed). The boys were uniformly good with some real standouts, such as Owen Scott as the comically sad Posner and Jay Sullivan as the sexually predatory Dakin. Sullivan, who looks like a youngish Robert Redford, embodied perfectly the golden boy that everyone wants.

Some of Zinoman's staging choices also failed to serve the production. The modular set, while clever and attractive, was used to excess, a common problem these days. Bennett's script evinces the sort of episodic structure that has pervaded British drama since the eighties, which can translate to upward of thirty scene changes. Rather than relying on lighting or movement to indicate a simple change, Zinoman had the "boys" constantly rearrange modular bits, moving archways and repositioning desks. The chronic changes, largely unnecessary, made an already choppy script even more disjointed. She also eliminated the back screen projection of eighties video footage, a choice that not only drained the play of its political context--and the Thatcher years are essential here--but also inadvertently revealed the flaws in Bennett's script.

On the face of it, The History Boys pays homage to a fast-fading society where knowledge is valued for itself and ethics still matter. Irwin, the young, smarty-pants history instructor (and pedagogical villain) teaches to exam results, not the intellect, preaching the virtues of glib originality to secure a place at Oxbridge. History for Irwin is little more than ductile narratives. If received opinion condemns Mussolini, then praise him; if post-war society denounces the Holocaust, then suggest its unexpected benefits. Projected video in the original show clearly associated Irwin's educational principles--if one can dignify them with such a word--with the excesses of the Thatcherism.  Without that context, Irwin seems little more than a smug prig, one of the pitfalls of the Studio Theatre production.

Against Irwin is juxtaposed the old humanist Hector, who quotes poetry and demands that his boys do the same. His lads learn for the sheer pleasure of learning, be it snippets of old movies or the French subjunctive. Hector also treats learning as a bulwark against the erosion of time, a way to fortify the spirit when all else fails.  If Irwin's efficient amorality is symptomatic of the Thatcher years, then Hector's intellectual messiness, a hodgepodge of high and low culture, brings to mind the post-war period of the fifties and sixties, when clever boys out of Oxbridge (some of whom like Bennett would go on to form Beyond the Fringe) married music hall vaudeville to Left Bank existentialism.  

Zinoman's production forsook Thatcherite politics for an emphasis on sexual desire, ironically, the most problematic aspect of Bennett's script.  While Hector, not Irwin, commands our sympathies, he is also pathetic: Auden, Hardy, and Housman, all masters of unrequited and repressed emotion, figure largely in his poetic flights for good reason. Unwilling to face his homosexuality or leave his marriage, Hector's longing finds expression in the sad little gropes visited upon the boys who ride double on his motorcycle.  While one would expect Irwin, the consummate product of the eighties, to embody post-Stonewall attitudes, he too longs silently from afar.  Only golden boy Dakin finds sexual fulfillment--and yet we recoil from his predatory pursuit of men and women alike.  

Indeed, The History Boys seems peculiarly intent on punishing those who "come out." Publicly exposed and shamed into early retirement, Hector enjoys a last-minute reprieve when the headmaster's own peccadillos--albeit of the heterosexual variety--are conveniently revealed. Circumstances thus accomplish what volition could not, forcing Hector to acknowledge his predilection for boys, not his wife.  Irwin plans to meet Dakin for what surely will prove to be a life-altering tete-a-tete.  A motorcycle accident at the penultimate moment, however, kills Hector and maims Irwin, thereby ensuring that neither man will know peace in the wake of sexual revelation. The postscript to the play proper, where we learn the eventual fate of the students, underscores the punitive message. Posner, another unfulfilled homosexual, is destined to halfway houses, psychiatric treatment, suicide attempts--and literary scribblings.

What, then, are we to make of a play that murders or cripples (literally and psychically), any male who gives voice to the love that dare not speak its name? Only Dakin prospers--as a slimy barrister. Moreover, his undifferentiated, avaricious sexuality appears--even more so than Irwin's educational policies--to figure the unbridled consumerism of the 80s. If so, then the play's outcome suggests both the triumph of capitalism over the socialist state and the victory of vulturine over repressed sexuality. Certainly, the maudlin ending secures this reading.  As the students and faculty eulogize Hector, we are expected to wax nostalgic for a mode of learning, as Bennett reminds us in 2004, now vanished--as has the unrequited version of homosexual longing he embodied. Even more disturbing is the collective price Hector, Irwin, and Posner pay for "coming out," an odd moral made all the more bald by Zinoman's decision to eliminate political context from the production.  At least in the Broadway/London premiere, the constant visual reminder of the Thatcher years shifted attention away from Bennett's dubious sexual message.

In the final analysis, The History Boys not only promotes misty-eyed remembrance of old-fashioned pedagogy but also of the days when men could not express same-sex desire. By suggesting that art and learning can only flourish in the soil of unhappiness, Bennett recycles the same muddled sentiments one finds in the worst Romantic poetry.  Only the sexual orientation has changed.


Monday, May 19, 2008

The Dilemma of Maggie

Maggie and Chloe have adapted quickly to a Cape Cod existence. Chloe, with her unerring instinct for comfort, quickly found the softest cushions, the plushest throw rugs, and the most luxurious pieces of furniture. Maggie discovered the best windows from which to watch the world at large. And both dogs figured out the prime spots in the kitchen for retrieving dropped bits of food.

On Sunday morning we walked to a bakery on Main Street, where we got muffins (dry, indifferent) and then hiked over to the pier. Unfortunately, the fishmonger at that location doesn't open yet for a few days, but we took the dogs out onto the beach that runs beneath the pier. They cavorted in the sand, gleefully running into the water but stopping short of outright swimming.

After an hour, we headed back, worried about Maggie. She tires easily and her bladder problem has not resolved. Some days she squats almost compulsively, and today seemed especially bad. Inside she wears a diaper; outside she relieves herself every block or so. It's difficult to watch and even more difficult to know what to do. Our oncologist professes never to have encountered ongoing urinary tract problems, claiming that in other dogs the symptoms abate after a week or two. An ultrasound scan showed thickening of Maggie's bladder, but tests revealed no infection, nor have antibiotics made an iota of difference.  I fear that Cytoxan has damaged her bladder or urethra permanently.

Rod wavers between putting Maggie down when we return to Annapolis and letting her finish out what's left of her life. We've stopped chemotherapy, and unless her condition improves, we will not resume. Since Maggie didn't have the full course of treatment, I'm assuming the lymphoma will return before too long. I too vacillate between euthanasia and life, and I am increasingly aware of burnout. The interrupted sleep; the endless medications; the frequent trips outside have exacted a toll. And Maggie has never been an easy dog, even under better circumstances than these. Stubborn to the point of mulishness, she resisted our various attempts at training. Her first year with us, we trudged dutifully from one expert to another. The third (and most expensive) trainer, a specialist in Portuguese Water Dogs, pronounced Maggie one of the most difficult dogs she had ever encountered, ranking her third out of a hundred, a number that gave us both pause. Rod, though, loved this wayward creature, and I didn't have the heart to put my foot down.  And so she stayed, assured of a loving home to the very end.

As Maggie matured, she either became more tractable or we simply yielded to her obstreperous (but essentially sweet) nature--I'm not sure which.  If she were a more accommodating dog, her illness might be less trying. Selfishly, I sometimes think of putting her down when it just seems too damn much, between the exasperating behavior and the grueling regimen. When I'm in a nobler frame of mind, I worry that we're sustaining her suffering. Most horrible is listening to Maggie groan when she empties her bladder, but these moments are thankfully infrequent. Whenever Rod and I discuss euthanasia, she invariably rebounds for several days, swaggering around the house, blithely indifferent to our commands, and then I'm relieved to see a return to her customary truculence.

Thus our dilemma.