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.

The Pleasures of Chatham

After our horrific drive to Mystic, CT, on Friday, we were rewarded with an easy three-hour jaunt to Chatham the following day. Light traffic and clearing weather made for blessedly welcome road conditions. We found ourselves ahead of our scheduled arrival, but the rental office permitted us to check in early, for which we were grateful.

Our two-bedroom condo, which perches one floor above the back end of a posh pet boutique, is better than expected. It looked lovely from the photos we saw, but we've been burned by some previous vacation rentals. Several years ago, what looked like a nice beach cottage on the island of Eleuthera turned out to be little more than a dive. Dirty, with broken rattan and unwelcome critters (I have a vague, partially repressed, recollection of a bat), it offered the additional indignity of broken-down beds. So colored was our Bahamian experience by this lousy rental that we have never ventured back. Of course, it didn't help that some locals slammed into our car on Christmas Eve, or that the police were unhelpful, if not downright hostile, or that my son was in the final throes of a very tough adolescence. It was not a good trip.

Chatham, by contrast, has always held good memories for us. When Rod and I were seriously courting, he whisked me away for several days at a lovely inn, replete with fireplace and hot tub. Several years later, after we married, we rented a pretty little house within an easy walk of the lighthouse. And here we are for the third time, again delighted by our accommodations. Our condo was recently refurbished, and while the owner favors the sort of Crate and Barrel look that can sometimes be a bit twee, in this instance, the decor isn't overly done. A seaside theme pervades, but, again, it's just enough to be charming, not oppressively cute. We especially like the skylights throughout and the smartly outfitted kitchen, gleaming with new marble countertops and shiny steel appliances. If a setting can presage good tidings, then I think we're in for a fine week once again.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Mystic Pizza

We spent ten hours on what should have been a five-hour drive from Annapolis, Maryland to Mystic, Connecticut. Truly, it was the drive from hell: non-stop, pelting rain and continuous traffic jams from the end of the Jersey Turnpike through New Haven. Horrible, horrible, horrible.

To compound matters, we had the dogs in the back of the car.  Mind you, these pets traveled in the height of luxury, thanks to Rod's clever improvisation of two soft dog beds atop blankets. Chloe, always the princess, sank luxuriously into her cushion, rousing herself periodically to peer out the window.  Maggie, more restless by nature, pawed us anxiously and refused to settle, making a hellish trip even more miserable.  

Today, I might add, we are drugging Maggie before completing our journey to Chatham, Cape Cod.

Last night we arrived in Mystic, exhausted and hungry, not to mention bedraggled from numerous stops in the rain with the dogs.  Thankfully, the staff at the local Comfort Inn were pleasant and helpful, for which we were infinitely grateful.  We got to our room, fed the dogs, and promptly opened and began draining a bottle of red wine.  By the second glass, we realized that food was a necessity--unless we both wanted to pass out on the motel floor.  We wanted delivery food; after the ten-hour drive-from-hell, there was no way either one of us would willingly get into a car again.

In some strange state of free-association (exhaustion + wine + empty stomach), I remembered Julia Roberts in the 80s indie flick, Mystic Pizza. It turns out there really is a Mystic Pizza, and they even deliver to motels on the outskirts of town.  Well, I'm happy to report that the pizza is as good as its filmic reputation: it's actually the best pizza I've had since we were in Florence five years ago.  The crust was flavorful and crispy, the sauce herbal and pungent, and the ingredients absolutely fresh.  I especially appreciated the quality cheese, apportioned in just the right amount.  The salad also delighted: again, fresh ingredients with some nice touches, such as freshly roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts, and crumbled gorgonzola. Thank you, Mystic Pizza, for one ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak, soggy day!

Contentedly fed and watered, we watched an eminently stupid but enjoyable movie on HBO, Blades of Glory.  I don't know why I watch trash in hotels that I would never tolerate in my normal, workaday life, but I hear this is a fairly universal phenomenon (to be pondered in a future blog).

And now for the second leg of our journey . . .

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Things That Go Screech in the Night

On Monday night at 4:00 a.m., Maggie needed to go outside. Rod graciously did the honors, trudging outside with the dogs into the cool night air.  Half-asleep, I was vaguely aware of their exit when I heard the most peculiar scream issuing from the woods behind our house.  Half feline and half goblin, it sounded like a cry and sob combined.  Chloe, so I am told, tore back to the house in terror; once inside, she leapt onto the bed and dug in close beside me, not moving a muscle for the next three hours.  What can I say?  She's an absolutely adorable but perfectly useless dog.  It's hard to believe that she's classified by the AKC as a working breed unless one considers reclining on laps a form of labor.  Good stalwart Maggie, however, puffed out her chest and answered each successive scream from the woods with a hearty woof.  Even in her debilitated state, she was going to face down this mysterious varmint.  She was, nonetheless, relieved to accompany Rod back into the house.

We still can't identify the sound, despite listening to audio snippets on the web.  We've narrowed down our suspects to a bobcat and screech owl; I think Rod is inclining toward the latter.  

I must say that spring has truly sprung in the Downs, between the possums, snakes, and mysterious screaming beasties.  Soon the big ugly toads that reside in the creek and serenade us through the night will make an appearance.  Often I find one on the front step, puffing up with indignation if I dare to push it aside gently with my toe.  I'm told these toads excrete some sort of vaguely psychedelic ooze: neighbors have warned me not to let the dogs lick them (as if). After the toads, come the tortoises, who regularly hazard their lives when crossing the road. I'm happy to report that everyone in the neighborhood makes a collective effort on their behalf, stopping cars and carrying them to safety.  As for the mosquitoes that feed upon us all, human and animal alike, no one accords them mercy.  I slap the miscreants with impunity, delighting at the little splat of blood (usually mine) that signals their demise.  I have no doubt that I will suffer many lowly reincarnations as a result of my terrible attitude, but I draw the line at mosquitoes.  Good karma only goes so far.

15 Ria

Yet another lackluster meal, this one in Washington. We were looking for somewhere to lunch (or brunch) before taking in History Boys at Studio Theatre (see the subsequent post). Our friends suggested 15 Ria, which received an "excellent" rating from Zagat in 2006. Our experience on Sunday suggests that either the kitchen has fallen apart over the last couple of years or that the reviewer was smoking something that obliterated his/her taste buds. In short, our meal was a far cry from the claims touted on 15 Ria's web site ("contemporary American cuisine, using a bounty of fresh local products") nor did it live up to reviews.

Rod and I ordered a vegetarian cannelloni that was undercooked and unappetizing, the dough chewy and the vegetables raw. It was cold to boot. We sent it back to the kitchen. Worried about making our 2.00 p.m. curtain, we ordered omelets, which are quick to prepare. The best thing I can say is that they were edible. Dry, tasteless, they reminded me why I usually refrain from souffles and omelets in restaurants. At home, I can ensure proper execution of these dishes, and I accord eggs the delicate handling they deserve. As a child, I remember my father teaching me how to make proper scrambled eggs, emphasizing light beating and gentle stirring over a low flame. I quickly acquired a taste for slightly runny, tender eggs, not the plastic foam one too often encounters in American restaurants.

While it was pleasant to sit outside on a glorious spring day, the patio service was grudging at best. One waitress was responsible for the outside dining area, and she was sullen and slow. Dishes crawled out of the kitchen, and we twice asked anxiously about the state of our lunches. We had budgeted 90 minutes for lunch, certainly a reasonable time in which to order and eat a meal.

Clearly, we will not return to 15 Ria.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Another Maggie Update

First, the good news: it appears that Maggie's cancer is in remission.  Now the not so good news: she's still suffering side effects from the Cytoxan administered three weeks ago.  It's much improved, but problems with incontinence persist, making us worry that permanent damage was done to her bladder or urethra.  The oncologist assures us that eventually the symptoms will subside, but we remain anxious.

This morning Maggie cavorted outside with Chloe, running after tennis balls, barking indignantly at squirrels, and, in general, having a grand time.  It was wonderful to see her with that much energy, something we never thought we would witness again.  We didn't think she would be strong enough to go sailing with us, but after this morning, we're starting to reconsider.  I'm not sure she could manage tough sailing in high winds, but I think she will do fine with moderate winds and a partially reefed mainsail.  We'll find out next Saturday, when we do our first "shake down" sail of the season.

Follow-Up to a Fishy Tale

The manager of Annapolis Seafood did indeed contact me via e-mail to say that he was looking into my complaint.  Apologies were offered (which I duly here accept).  I still won't be returning to Annapolis Seafood anytime soon.  On Thursday I stopped by the local Whole Foods in Annapolis and purchased some "west coast sole" (what we used to call "sand dabs"), which was very good and very fresh, not to mention reasonably priced.  I'm not thrilled about giving my food dollars to Whole Foods, but right now they seem like the only good alternative for fish.

Of course, with halibut costing nearly $24.00/pound, I'm not sure we will be eating that much fish in the future, unless, of course, I come across the occasional special, as I did on Thursday.  I remain divided on the subject of fish from aquafarms.  I gather that some species, such as Tilapia, do little damage, while salmon wreak havoc on the environment.  For the time being, I'm inclining toward "wild" fish caught from the sea, but it's becoming almost prohibitively expensive, and I'm worried about overfishing.  It's difficult to know fully the ethical implications of one's choices.