Friday, May 18, 2007


By chance, I came across an amazing video clip on YouTube this morning,* and it brought back a vivid first-hand memory, dating back to 1986, to which my fervent response was, and is: Better Nancy Reagan than me.

That was actually my second thought as I watched the First Lady's chair tip backward off the dais in the East Room, depositing her in the flowerpots. My first thought was that something incomparably more awful had happened. After all, the President was there as well, delivering some graceful concluding remarks to the two hundred of us privileged to hear Vladimir Horowitz's White House recital; his presence, along with the Secret Service, the Marine Guards, the press, inevitably lends a kind of supercharge to the aura of any room he inhabits. So that sudden flurry, the chair toppling, the involuntary gasp from the crowd, the people rushing forward all conjured up a sense of waking nightmare, even fifteen years before 9/11: can something awful be happening? Here? Now?

But the next instant, Mrs. Reagan had bounced up unhurt, and she and the President were quipping away as if they'd rehearsed the whole thing. "I told you, only if I'm not getting any laughs," he said, and got a big laugh. And smiling, unflustered, unwrinkled, not breathing hard, not flushed, without a stammer, Nancy tossed off a bon mot of her own -- "I guess I livened things up" -- and resumed her seat (her chair having been moved, in the interim, a good two feet from the treacherous edge of the platform). Horowitz locked his left arm around her waist and kept it there until the President had finished his speech, and then, smiling and chatting, the Reagans and the Horowitzes trooped nonchalantly out of the room, leaving the rest of us to buzz.

"I saw it coming," said my wife. "She had on a tight skirt, and she was tugging it down, and the chair was inching at every tug." And that became the Official Version, as reported by The Washington Post and The New York Times the next day. But everyone else had his or her own version, some little detail that non one else had noticed, some explanation, some point of view. It was like Rashomon; no one of us could quite take in the totality of the event we'd just witnessed. It was a leveling experience, though; it restored the democratic balance between the celebrity musicians and politicians, who'd never seen anything like it in all their visits to the White House, and the nobodies (like us) who had lucked into an invitation and were there for the first time. Now, everybody had something to talk about, and if you had had a better sight line than a symphony conductor or a newsweekly publisher, he wanted to know what your angle was.

My wife and I were there because fate kindly arranged, forty years ago, that my family and the Horowitzes should become friends. We've had the good fortune to hear him play many times -- once, several years ago, in Washington, when we came down the morning of the recital and went home as soon as it was over. Could anything be more special than listening to the greatest living pianist? What would those Russians who froze all night waiting for a ticket, whose tears streamed down their faces as he played, answer? But such is the human capacity to become inured to blessings that this time, it was the Presidential overtones that set our hearts to beating a little faster.

In some ways, we felt very privileged: just telling the cab driver, "The White House, please -- Visitors' entrance," gave me a charge, though as it turned out, he couldn't find the Visitors' entrance, having been misdirected by a D.C. cop, and we had to walk a quarter of a mile from where we were let off. Next time we'll get a limo, we told each other. But sweeping past the crowds of tourists toward the portico, the heart-stopping moment when the guard holding the Guest List couldn't seem to find our names, showing the requisite identification (our social security numbers having been provided weeks before), all reminded us that this was a special day, a time to soak up the memories and impressions for our daughter and our friends in New York.

But it's a nerve-racking business, in some ways, going to the White House. The identification, the metal detector, the handbag search were more than a little sobering; this wasn't a routine social or cultural occasion in any way. If I had a sense of being a witness to history on a very small scale, I had a complementary sense that my role was to remain invisible, on my best behavior, while history unfolded. One doesn't go wandering around the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, thumbing through books and opening closet doors; if you have to the go the bathroom, a Marine major escorts you. Remember being an adolescent, worrying about developing a pimple before the dance, about buying the wrong corsage, or saying the wrong thing, or not being able to say anything at all? My wife was nervous too; an hour before, in the hotel room, trying on and discarding innumerable pairs of pantyhose, she was worried she'd faint if she didn't eat something. Not since my wedding, when I was sure that during the ceremony my knees would lock, pitching me forward onto the rabbi's feet, have I fretted so about keeping countenance. What if I started coughing while Horowitz were playing? Belched? Sneezed on someone's tie? Had some kind of fit? None of these things was likely, but I could imagine it, everyone slowly turning around and looking at me with an expression of incredulity on their faces.

That was just the expression on the face of the Leader of the Free World when his wife did her back flip into the geraniums. The kind of thing that would surely mortify you if it ever really happened actually did happen -- in the middle of the President's speech -- and to the President's wife! But that, of course, made all the difference. If I'd fallen off my chair, I doubt whether the Chief Executive and I would have shrugged the incident off together with a little exchange of impromptu humor. Nancy Reagan belonged up there; she was in her own home, surrounded by her own guests (though I imagine she'd not met a third of them), and her aplomb undoubtedly stemmed, in part, from her sense of security: if I want to steal the stage from my husband by taking a pratfall while he maunders on, by God, I'll do it! And of course, all those years of social training, of discipline, of learning how to carry off difficult moments with tact, diplomacy, just the right gesture or remark -- they had prepared her superbly for a really juicy example of what the Reader's Digest would probably call My Most Embarrassing Moment. If it had been me, I'd never have appeared in public again; five minutes later, at the reception, she was laughing about it as if she actually found it funny! I loved her at that moment. By a process of Darwinian selection, the one person in the room who could survive accident, or practical joke, or trick of fate, and actually triumph over it, was the person it happened to. Confirmed atheist though I am, I thought, there is a God. Better -- much, much better -- Mrs. Reagan than me.

*Check out the video yourself. It’s hard to find on YouTube’s website, but you can Google “Horowitz at the Reagan White House” and play it right from the fifth listing on the page.


I've been taking a break from Shakespeare since NYU let out, revisiting some classic American stories -- among them the one by Stephen Crane from which I gleaned the quotation attached to Danielle's and Ben's wedding announcement, and also that mother lode of American myth-making, The Great Gatsby. And I came across the following obituary, which in many ways is a retelling of Fitzgerald's story, all except for the ending.

Frank Parker, U.S. Tennis Champion, 81
by Richard Goldstein (The New York Times, July 25th, 1997)

Frank Parker, a product of a poor Milwaukee family who was discovered by his mentor while working as a ball boy and who rose to win the United States Nationals singles tennis title twice, died last Thursday. He was 81. . . .

At the age of 10, Franciszek Patkowski was hitting discarded tennis balls at the Milwaukee Town Club where he worked -- turning over all but a nickel of his $2 weekly pay to his widowed mother, Ann -- when he caught the eye of the club coach, Mercer Beasley.

Mr. Beasley taught the youngster the game, taking him along to New Orleans for intensive coaching when the Beasley family moved there.

At 15, Mr. Patkowski was crowned national boys’ champion, at 16 he became national junior champion, and at 17 he won the national clay-court championship.

When Mr. Beasley became the tennis coach at Lawrenceville Academy in New Jersey, his protégé enrolled there, then went on to Princeton. He changed his name to Frank Parker, perhaps because tournament officials had trouble pronouncing the name Franciszek Patkowski.

In 1938, Mr. Beasley’s tutoring of Mr. Parker ended. That is when Mr. Beasley’s wife, Audrey, divorced him and married Mr. Parker, then 22 and her junior by about 20 years. She became his adviser and trainer and also tailored his tennis wardrobe.

“They remained the best of friends,” [Parker’s nephew] said of Mr. Parker’s later relationship with Mr. Beasley. “When he won a tournament, he got a congratulatory wire.”

. . . He played briefly as a pro, barnstorming with [Pancho] Gonzales, [Jack] Kramer and Bobby Riggs. After retiring, he was a sales manager for a box company.


“Everybody complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it,” wrote Mark Twain. Ah, those were the days. Twain’s irony must certainly be lost on the legions of world citizens who demand -- and most persuasively -- that steps be taken to reverse global warming before we all become victims to its manifold threats: bigger and more frequent tropical storms, the melting of glaciers and concomitant rise in sea levels, soaring ambient temperatures that will transform New York into Calcutta and Calcutta into hell.

I don’t dispute the Annapurna of evidence for global warming. Even if we take the longest possible view, under which global warming is part of a natural cycle of heating up and cooling off that the earth periodically goes through, the human race has a strong vested interest in prolonging the cold snap that’s coming to an end; after all, another natural cycle with which we’re familiar is the evolutionary one, in which species appear, become dominant, and then decline and fall because they’re unable to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

But I do confess to a certain nostalgia for the days when not every looming disaster was someone’s fault, representing a remedy overlooked or ignored. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger got his face turned into hamburger in a motorcycle accident last year, and strident voices were immediately raised: it’s his fault for irresponsibly ignoring the helmet option; it’s the fault of Pennsylvania for not mandating helmets; it’s the Steelers’ fault for not limiting his transportation choices to something tamer, like roller skates; it’s the fault of the driver of the car with which he collided, who apparently received death threats. The term “accident” has almost lost its meaning here in the early third millennium. The explanation that events take place randomly has come to seem disingenuous and self-serving -- best example being Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “Stuff happens,” which apparently argues that that the carnage and chaos in Iraq are independent of the fact that we sent an army of destruction there unaccompanied by anyone who knew how to preserve the infrastructure or restore order.

In other areas besides the political and military, though, we can see a similar logic of victimization at work. I’m not the first to point out that in third-millennium America, if someone dies, someone else must be to blame: the doctors who pronounced the cancer ineradicable, the HMO’s that refused to sponsor experimental treatments, even the patient, who did not assist in his own cure by adopting a posture of optimistic and resolute fortitude. A child falls off the monkey bars in the playground: sue the city. A woman spills hot coffee in her lap: sue McDonald’s. You choose a humungous SUV over a Prius, even though you know its gas tank will cost a hundred bucks to fill: throw your congressman out of office if he won’t lobby for using up our emergency reserve fund.

My concern is hardly the root causes of all these ills; some of them are surely preventable, others not. What I want to point out is that the weather is no longer the last bastion of irresponsibility as far as mortals are concerned. When the rains fell for two solid weeks last May, I noticed that many of my friends and neighbors didn’t resort to Mark Twain’s stoicism; instead, they pointed the finger. See, see, what did we tell you? Global warming means more volatile weather; get used to it. Every cold snap, every heat spell, every blizzard and drought is now exorcised from its customary category as (take your pick, depending on your spiritual orientation) an act of God or stuff that happens. We no longer have the luxury of simply wallowing in self-pity when the weather doesn’t cooperate with our plans or our esthetic; to our pouting is now added guilt. The beaches of both coasts will be under water before we know it, and IT’S ALL OUR FAULT; we’re being justly punished for our excesses.

Monday, May 14, 2007


Danielle and Ben on their wedding day -- May 9th, 2007.

Saturday, May 12, 2007


Yes, it has happened, at last! That's rice they're being pelted with, and a marriage license in Danielle's hand! Look how intrepid Benoit looks, leading her into the wilderness of a new life (or is it more like Adam leading Eve out of Eden?).

Nancy and I are thrilled and happy, even if we couldn't be present for the ceremony (in which, by the way, everyone was barefoot, even the mayor of Utila).

Of course some relevant epigraph must appear. I'm going to abandon Shakespeare for the moment, and go with something non-standard but choice.

If you ain’t got a gun, why ain’t you got a gun?” Scratchy sneered. “Been to Sunday-school?”
“I ain’t got a gun because I’ve just come from San Anton’ with my wife. I’m married,” said Potter. “And if I’d thought there was going to be any galoots like you prowling around when I brought my wife home, I’d had a gun, and don’t you forget it.”
“Married!” said Scratchy, not at all comprehending. Seemingly for the first time, he saw the drooping, drowning woman at the other man’s side. “No!” He was like a creature allowed a glimpse of another world. He moved a pace backward, and his arm, with the revolver, dropped to his side. “Is this the lady? he asked.”
“Yes; this is the lady,” answered Potter.
There was another period of silence.
“Well,” said Wilson at last, slowly, “I s’pose it’s all off now.”
“It’s all off if you say so, Scratchy. You know I didn’t make the trouble.” Potter lifted his valise.
“Well, I ‘low it’s off, Jack,” said Wilson. He was looking at the ground. “Married!” He was not a student of chivalry; it was merely that in the presence of this foreign condition he was a simple child of the earlier plains. He picked up his starboard revolver, and, placing both weapons in their holsters, he went away. His feet made funnel-shaped tracks in the heavy sand."

-- Stephen Crane, "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky"

Friday, May 11, 2007

"Flubber" by Danielle Horwich (age 6)

Make something.
Break it down, fall down, say Well,
Let's go back to bed.
Take a balloon.
Take it.
Blow it up.
Take ten more or all you can get
And go outside.
Place them in the car.
Take anything that you can blow up in the car
Start the motor and

My retirement announcement from Brooklyn College

And it came to pass that my heart was heavy, and I knew not the remedy. So I said unto the Lord, “Lord, my joy is gone from me. For I no longer wish to do battle with the Philistines in the Land of Brooklyn whereto, lo, these thirty years, have I sojourned. And the College that lieth in the Land of Brooklyn hath offered me an early-retirement incentive, and I am sorely tempted, Lord, to accept this bounty. But also, I am afraid, for to some, retirement is a blessing, but to others, it is a curse. And I know not what to do. Lord, send me a sign.” But the Lord spake not.

And on the next day in the College that lieth in the Land of Brooklyn, the Pharaoh of the Department of English calleth me into his chamber. And the Pharaoh sayeth unto me, “Lo, Horwich, thy disciples have fallen away from thee, and I hereby cancelleth thy Shakespeare elective for insufficient enrollment. And in its stead, I give thee this choice: thou mayst teach English 1: Fundamentals of Composition, or, if thou wilt, thou mayst teach English 0.4: Fundamentals of Composition (Remedial). How chooseth thou?”

And the Pharaoh’s words were like a black cloud sweeping over a starry sky, and I knew despair, for teaching Fundamentals of Composition is as eating thistles, but teaching Fundamentals of Composition (Remedial) is as eating thistles with tares. And then at once, a thought came unto me: that this was the sign from God for which I had prayed. And my heart leapt up, and I accepted the early retirement incentive, effective January 30th, 1998. And my household rejoiceth, and all our hearts are full.

Poety in Motion?

They have no need of poetry,
Those who should be moving shortly in the sooty tubes
Beneath the river that surfaces at Times Square.
No need of Strand's or Clampitt’s airy overviews
That fresco the walls of buses,
Short-haul limos awash in the city’s changing lights.
No, those with tunnel vision
Have more pressing concerns
Than thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.
They need to know
Where to get their torn earlobes stitched
How to avoid AIDS and its evil twin SIDA
And most of all
What steps to take
When they can’t move
And the lights go out.