Sunday, December 27, 2009


Danielle and Maxim share a quiet moment at the beach on Utila

Hello, friends, colleagues and well-wishers! Thank you to those of you who were organized enough to send out your cards and letters before Christmas; we now reciprocate as best we can.

2009, as it was for everyone, was an up-and-down year for the Horwich and Bellenoue families -- more up than down. Maxim learned how to walk, is beginning to talk, and is shedding his diapers. And it was a year of family reunions. Benoit, Danielle and Maxim made a long-awaited trip to France to visit Ben's family in Paris, Orleans and Montpellier -- Danielle says she met 38 relatives of all descriptions, and her conversational French improved dramatically. Here are Ben

and Maxim in the garden behind his sister Agnes's house in the Parisian suburb of Houilles. And we all met in Orlando last month where, at Animal Planet, Disney presented a wide-eyed little boy with tigers, zebras, rhinos and gibbons. Nancy and Dick visited Utila once; Danielle, Ben and Maxim made several trips to the States.

Dick revealed to the world his secret life as a playwright. He has written perhaps the most uncommercial play in history: its title is The Merchant of Venice, Act Six, and its audience needs to be on speaking terms with the Shakespeare play to which it is a sequel, which rules out about 95% of potential playgoers. Nonetheless, it received a professional reading during the spring at The Naked Stage, an East End group that supports dramatic activities out here. In the picture below, Dick is reading stage directions; the actors are Melissa Hermann, Molly McKenna, Josh Perl and Joe Brondo. The next step would be a workshop; if anyone knows a small theater group that's looking for material, please have them get in touch!

Nancy is continuing to grow as a potter and has had several shows (with accompanying sales) this year: first, as a member of the Clay Art Guild in Water Mill and also as a student at the West Side Y in Manhattan. She is setting up a pottery workshop in our basement but also will continue her lessons with master potters Nancy Robbins in Sag Harbor and Outi Putkonen in New York City. "Learning something new at my age is a wonderful thing. Making money while doing it is miraculous." Here she is at a sale of her wares in Water Mill; above are adorable Smurfy bud vases of her creation.

And finally, we peripatetic Horwiches have moved from our tiny pied a terre on First Avenue and 100th Street to a larger, brighter, and infinitely more convenient apartment at 108 East 96th St. (10128 is the Zip), between Lexington and Park, handy to Central Park and the subway and buses.

All in all, as the song goes, it's been a very good year. And we wish everyone the same for 2010.


Nancy, Dick, Danielle, Benoit & Maxim

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


The picture above of our back porch will give you an idea of how hard East Hampton got slammed by the blizzard last Sunday. NYC got 12”; the deepest snow measured in Suffolk County was 26”, but I think we got closer to thirty. I foolishly left the car in the garage overnight, instead of doing what my more experienced neighbors did, which was to park it at the bottom of the driveway facing out. Much easier to clear snow off the car than shovel a 100-foot driveway. It didn’t really matter, though, because the town hadn’t gotten around to plowing the street when we had to leave on Monday. I had thought briefly about leaving Saturday morning to beat the storm, but the people who did that hit a wall of white coming at them, and at least one had to abandon her car in Nassau Country.

So there we were, on Monday morning. I had to give my final exam at 2:00 on Waverly Place. The jitneys were running, but how to get into town? We ended up floundering down the driveway and along our road to a bigger road that had been plowed. Then we stuck out our thumbs. Twenty minutes before the jitney was due to leave, a taxi – one from a company I hadn’t called – stopped for us. There were three people in it, all going to the jitney, so we were saved.

But what about that blizzard itself? Some of the forecasters were calling it a 50-year-storm, not so much because of its intensity as because it occurred (technically) before winter had even begun. The usual pattern where we live is chilly Decembers, frigid Januaries, and lots of snow in February and early March.

I believe this storm was a manifestation of global warming. Wherever the warmth is (and it ain’t here), it makes for more volatile weather all over the world -- more or less rain than usual, hotter or colder than normal. I’d love it if New York’s climate was changed into Atlanta’s overnight, but maybe we're going to become Montreal South. Last summer, June and July were like April – cool and damp. When summer did come, in August, it lasted for three blistering weeks and then it got cool again. It also seems to me that the past few years have gotten windier, though this is purely a subjective impression garnered on area golf courses.

After the relative fiasco of the conference in Copenhagen, I’m more convinced than ever that there’s no solution. The sundry nations of this world – controlled as they are by governments driven by self-interest and short term political and economic gains – are not going to lower emissions. It’s estimated that the world’s power usage will rise 50% in the next twenty years, and windmills aren't the answer. I’ve flipflopped on nuclear power; there will inevitably be accidents like Three Mile Island, but the benefits of all that clean energy outweigh them.

Rather than spend the trillions necessary to change the climate, why don’t we spend billions preparing for the worst? Holland, centuries ago, didn’t try to lower sea level. Instead, they built dykes to raise land level. That may not work for the Seychelles, but then, nothing will. Global warming, within my grandson’s lifetime, will make uninhabitable all of the tropical and most of the subtropical parts of the earth. It will correspondingly make habitable – by which I mean arable, comfortable, viable -- places like Murmansk, Hudson’s Bay, and the Cape of Good Hope. More people die in today’s world from extreme cold than from extreme heat; there will be enormous dislocations but the result, globally, won’t be all bad.

Or else it will. There’s a fair chance we’ll pollute and poison this planet until human life can’t inhabit it any more. Is that a bad thing? Yes, for human life; no for Mother Earth. Ecologically-minded people who worry about what we’re doing to the planet would be better off worrying about themselves. Some time after the last human dies, after the last V-8 runs out of fuel, after the last coal-fired power planet shuts down, Earth will start to heal itself. It may take a thousand years or a million, but eventually, it will be Eden again. Everything will be green. The polar ice caps will have re-frozen. The snow pack on Mount Kilimanjaro will have returned. The coral reefs will teem with fish. There will be isolated traces of mankind's existence, but no archaeologists to study them.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Puerto Madrynn, Argentina, is probably the northernmost outpost of Patagonia on the Atlantic side of South America, and justifiably popular, therefore, with tourists, which is what we were three years ago. Memorable are the fauna, particularly the sea lions and penguins. Unmemorable is the food. I reproduce below -- word for word -- the menu of one of the most popular eateries in town, which I just came across leafing through old travel brochures. We stuck to steak; can't go wrong with that in Argentina.

Shell fishes to the Milanese with three sauce

Variety of shellfishes to the pickle

Muffled up in flour meat in lemon and olive oil with capers and parmesan cheese

Cold meat brawn with Russian salad

Unrine ham with palmettos

Unrine ham with melon

Bird mayonnaise

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Nancy and I went with friends to see Clint Eastwood's Invictus the other night. It wasn't my first choice; no political movie ever is. But two of my favorite actors were in it -- Matt Damon and the inestimable Morgan Freeman, than whom no one on stage or screen has more effortless gravitas.

In case you've missed the hype and glowing reviews, Invictus concerns the successful efforts of Nelson Mandela to win black South Africans' hearts and minds away from soccer to the national rugby team, the Springboks, which had always symbolized for them the white Afikaaner nation that had oppressed them for so long. Mandela had two tasks to accomplish: first, to make a losing, dysfunctional team competitive on the world stage, and second, to convince black citizens that it was their team as well as their white counterparts.

I didn't hate the film. I was simply bored out of my skull. The film takes its title from an 1875 poem by the justifiably obscure Ernest William Henley, which is to poetry what Invictus is to film -- a collection of noble sentiments. "I am the captain of my fate, / I am the master of my soul," it proclaims, and the film's writers take their cue from that approach to discourse. Throughout, Mandela speaks only in political phrases, laying out his case not only through public addresses but to his staff and friends as well. To his aides, he says things like, " This is the time to build our nation" and "How do we inspire ourselves to greatness, when nothing less will do?" Damon is the Springboks' inspirational leader, Mandela's counterpart in the locker room, whose version of polspeak is the relentless pep talks he gives over and over: "We need to become more than just a rugby team," he tells us. He has a girlfriend with whom he won't have sex because he wants to save his anger for the field, and that's the only potentially personal relationship in the movie, Winnie Mandela (Mandela's estranged wife) having been conveniently dropped down the memory hole.

The actors sleepwalk through these roles; neither is given any recognizable human emotion to portray. What's left is a series of recurrent motifs: Mandela greeting by name and shaking the hands of overawed white rugby players; the stilted, suspicious gibes of his mixed-race security detail slowly turning into comradely banter; and scenes from the rugby matches -- largely incomprehensible to American audiences who don't quite know what happens when thirty large men in shorts huddle in a snorting, straining "scrum" and the ball mysteriously pops free and is picked up by a member of one team or the other. Just how the Springboks went from last to first in the standings would have made a good story (though it would have turned Invictus into just another sports movie, along the lines of Any Given Sunday, which takes its football seriously). Eastwood seems to think it believable that it happened just because Mandela convinced Damon who convinced the team that it would be a good thing to win every game they played. Not only do we have to watch all the huffing and puffing, we have to listen to the entire South African national anthem, which is as tedious as listening to anthems always is.

As the credits rolled at the end, half the people in the theater rose and applauded. What they were applauding was not the filmmaking, I think, so much as the PC sentiments portrayed. In the movie's limited context, South Africa's race problem had been solved, decades of hatred and resentment wiped away by men of good will who had been brought together by the towering figure of compassion and good sense that Mandela represented. (Tomorrow, December 17th, happens to be The Day of the Vow, still joyously celebrated by white Afrikaaners as the anniversary of the slaughter of 3,000 Zulus back in 1838.) In reality, I think, Mandela is indeed a larger-than-life figure, one of history's most admirable and effective political leaders -- like Gandhi. And in fact, this film reminded me a lot of Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, another interminable, dry, lifeless hommage to a fascinating man reduced to a figurehead and a symbol.

Interestingly, in conversations with people who've claimed to have enjoyed Invictus, I've been able to change their minds about it by asking whether they really enjoyed the performances, individual scenes, cinematic moments and the like. "Well, actually," more than a couple of them have said, "I can't think of anything. I guess it was a little long." Yes, but it was saying all the right things. Duty required us to appreciate Eastwood's high-mindedness, and to reciprocate by approving his PC sentiments. But I hope he'll go back to making films like Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino. Both of them, like Invictus, were about heroes. But they were also about people.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Everyone expects me to blog about Tiger, just because I used to write about golf. But this isn't golf, it's adultery -- and it takes a strange form.

When the story first broke, I thought it was just another case of a star athlete giving in to one of the main perks of the job, the hordes of groupies who wait for them outside the arena, stadium or course to make sure their nights aren't lonely. Wilt Chamberlain bragged in his autobiography that he'd slept with 20,000 women during his career -- kind of gives new meaning to the term "dunking," doesn't it? I used to know a flight attendant who worked Yankee charters and who told me that one of the ballplayers (a name you'd recognize) was hitting on her during a flight and she asked him whether he was married. "Well, yeah," he is supposed to have replied, "but I'm not a fanatic about it."

But this is different. The whole story hasn't surfaced yet, but it's clear that Tiger wasn't engaging in serial one-night stands. He was actually having affairs with two other women -- leaving cell-phone records of multiple calls stretching back over a two-year period. Was his marriage to Elin (pictured above) rocky from the start? Why did he get married, anyway? To have kids whom he'd see very little of until he retired, by which time they'd be out of college?

"I'm human," he finally told the press, after the monumental PR screwup of the initial revelation. But that's just it. Before this, he didn't seem exactly human. No one on the PGA tour came off as more driven, more disciplined. He's remade his golf swing twice in eight years; it wasn't broke, but he fixed it anyway. And people want to see (or hear) what's behind the facade; there are half a dozen YouTubes of him farting during last year's Buck Open.

But lust seems a different matter. Except it doesn't seem to be lust, or only lust. He must need something from Ms. Grubb and Ms. Uchitel that Elin isn't giving him, whether it be companionship, understanding, or what the French call nostalgie de la boue -- an urge to wallow in dark places. In a piece dated today, December 6th, Carly Crawford in the Sunday Herald Sun said that at least in the case of Rachel Uchitel, "She was the only one he loved - he told her he loved her. He tells them it's their secret. He makes them feel special. You don't talk (publicly) after that." So maybe it is just that familiar athlete's habit of ringing up scores, after all.

It will be interesting, at all events, to see how this plays out. More interesting than Tiger's doings have been so far.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, and Nancy and I are starting to think about our annual pilgrimage to Utila, a tiny island off the coast of Honduras, where Danielle, Ben and Maxim live.

Utila has both its charms (it is a Caribbean resort, after all, with world-class diving) and its drawbacks (aside from the diving, there are no recreational facilities, and the beaches and restaurants are nothing to twitter home about). All that is pretty much beside the point – seeing our kids is Prioritas Uno. But getting there is something of a hassle.

Though it’s only (!) about 2000 miles away as the crow flies, we haven’t yet found a crow willing to take us there. So the usual routine is to fly to Miami, then to San Pedro Sula (Honduras’ second-largest city), then to La Ceiba (a smaller city on the coast), and then negotiate the last 20 miles to the island itself either by charter or ferry. If everything is on schedule, this takes about sixteen hours; if not, maybe 24. The trip is like recapitulating the history of air travel in reverse: you start out on a 767 and end up on a single-engine four-seat Cessna 172, manufactured sometime during the Ford administration.

A couple of years ago, we tried a different tactic. There’s a somewhat larger island only a few miles away from Utila called Roatan, on which there’s an international airport. It’s possible to fly Continental from NY to Houston to Roatan fairly quickly and easily. The catch is that there’s only one flight a week, going and coming, and you still have to get from Roatan to Utila, which ain’t easy: there are no boats (abortive attempts to run a ferry have all failed, despite the fact that there are always prospective passengers), so you’re back to flying. Anyway, we thought we’d give it a shot: we chartered a Cessna (the air taxi of choice down there) to meet our plane from the States and everything worked perfectly: we were on time into Roatan on a beautiful sunny day, the charter was waiting for us, and a smooth half an hour later we were hugging our family as we stood on the short, pitted tarmac that passes for Utila’s landing strip.

The problem was the return ten days later. Though the rainy season had ended, no one had told the clouds that were massing over the island. Rain started falling early in the morning, and by the time we reached the Utila “airport,” the half-mile-long runway was soggy, its potholes full of water. To make matters worse, there was another couple ahead of us; the Cessna would have to pick them up, turn around in Roatan and come back. When we saw it land, bouncing and splashing, we knew that would never happen. Though the pilot said he’d try his best to return, they barely got airborne, and we mentally kissed them goodbye. We had two hours to make our flight from Roatan to Houston; the next one was the following week.

Baffled, we shrugged at each other as the rain got stronger. We were joined by a girl in her 20’s carrying a large backpack; we asked her what her travel plans were, but she was vague. As we stood there, debating what to do, we heard the sound of engines. Plural. Not the lawn-mower putt-putt of the Cessna, but something more powerful. Out of the clouds appeared a small twin-engine airliner. It landed with no difficulty and taxied over the shed in which we were standing,. On its tail was emblazoned “CENTRAL AMERICAN AIRLINES.” Ben, who’s lived there for fifteen years, shrugged in bewilderment. Central American flies only between Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, and San Pedro Sula, its other big city. “That’s my ride,” announced the girl with the backpack, and strode toward the plane, whose passenger door had been opened by a man in a the sort of purser’s uniform that reminded me of Pan-Am clipper days.

I followed her, splashing through the puddles, and as she boarded the plane, I asked the purser, heart in mouth, where he was going. “Roatan,” he replied. “Will you take us?” I demanded. He looked me up and down, chewed his lip, and finally answered, “Only if you pay in cash.” “How much?” “Fifty dollars each,” he said decisively, as if to forestall any bargaining on my part.

I would have paid five hundred. I stuffed bills into his hand, Nancy and I kissed the kids goodbye and hurriedly boarded. There were about 12 rows of seats, and only three passengers -– Nancy, myself, and the backpacker. As we taxied to the end of the runway, the pilot’s voice came over the intercom. Now it gets weird. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, in barely accented English. “Welcome to Central American Airways Flight Six, from Utila to Roatan. Today we will be flying at an altitude of nine hundred feet, and our estimated flight time is fourteen minutes. Sit back, relax, and have a pleasant journey.” The sense of disconnect was surreal – we were essentially being rescued, but here were all the amenities of “real” air travel,

Fourteen minutes later we landed in Roatan, an hour early for our flight to Houston.
I was profoundly grateful for the travel assist, and entertained by the theatrical veneer of professionalism, which you never get when you fly on Sosa or Copa, the legitimate airlines in that part of the world. Danielle says I should take a lesson from what happened: that some solution to a travel problem always comes along, so I shouldn’t sweat these things as I do. But I think this year, we’ll go back to the longer but somewhat more predictable four-leg version of the journey.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


I'm in a nostalgic mood. Rooting around the computer, I came across these vignettes.


"Give it back," I said to my eleven-year-old daughter.

"You got a problem?" she said, widening her eyes. "Is there a problem, Mister?"

I laughed. I loved it when she did shtick for me. She was only eleven years old, but she had a nicely developed sense of irony. She had been watching Wheel of Fortune in our bedroom when I came home, emptying my pockets onto the top of the old mahogany dresser; Danielle had hopped off the bed, lifted my wallet, and disappeared down the hall into her room with it. Taking things that belonged to adults was one of her favorite numbers; a couple of weeks earlier, she had filched a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her friend Camilla's father's sport jacket while he was driving them back from a weekend in the country. "He shouldn't smoke," she explained to us.

"I kind of think that's his call, don't you?" I had said to her.

"I probably saved his life," she had answered. "Anyway, Camilla told me to do it."



Danielle is in a playful mood. She flops down next to me on Nancy's and my bed in East Hampton, where I’m watching the news, and snatches the remote control out of my hand. She tunes the television to MTV and slips the remote control under her butt. Then she expels air noisily through loose lips, the way a tired horse does. “How would you spell that?” she asks me. “Me and Lee and Kiki were trying to figure it out.”

“How about ‘P-T-P-T-P-T-P-T’?”

“We came up with ‘P-F-F-F-F-F,’ I don’t know why,” she says. She wheels around, facing away from the television. She puts her feet on the wall and grabs the phone, dragging it off the bedside table. It lands on the floor with a crash.

“PLEASE don’t stretch the cord out, like you did with your own phone,” I tell her.

She gives me “P-F-F-F-F-F” again, spraying my face with saliva. “Do you want me to tell you about me and Kiki’s most disgusting saliva fight?” she asks, her face lighting up at the memory. Without pausing for an answer, she launches into it. “We’re hanging out at her apartment, her mom’s around somewhere but we’re really all alone, and there’s this bowl of M & Ms, so I put a bunch of them in my mouth, and suddenly there’s Kiki giving me this Zerber on my bare arm.”
“What’s a Zerber?” I ask.

She makes a wry face at my ignorance. “A putzel,” she says, borrowing a Yiddish term from her grandparents. “So I turn around and I spit this huge soggy mass of chewed-up M & M’s right in her hair. So we both put more M & Ms in our mouths, and we’re chewing them frantically, and she’s got all these chocolate and peanuts dripping off her head. But then her mom came in. Too bad!”

Nancy comes out of the bathroom in her robe, turns off the television set and announces that she wants to go to bed. Danielle’s expression changes to wild alarm. “Nooo!” she says. She flips onto her stomach and spreadeagles herself, grabbing each corner of the mattress with a hand and digging her feet under the bottom of the mattress. She is wearing a pair of my cast-off boxer shorts and a huge ripped tee shirt that says FRANKIE SAY . . . Arm the Unemployed on it. Her long hair is wild, hanging over her face. How big she’s gotten this year! Smooth and muscular, her skin glossy; at fourteen, she is all girl, a little too much so for comfort sometimes, given her penchant for loose, skimpy clothing and sudden, animated motion.

“Let’s go, Danielle. Uppy-uppy,” says Nancy.

“I want to sleep in here with you,” says Danielle over her shoulder, mischief turning the corners of her mouth up. “It’s cold in my room.” She’s right about that; we’ve just arrived an hour before from the city to a house whose thermostat has been set at 45 degrees, and the heat hasn’t really come up yet. The only warm place is her mother’s side of the bed, with its electric mattress pad.

“Then put some clothes on,” says Nancy. “I’m cold too, and I want to get under the covers. Let’s stop before someone ends up in tears.”

But Danielle can’t stop. She lets go of the bed, grabs the top blanket and wraps herself up in it like a mummy, then starts rocking back and forth, making crooning noises. She is lying across the bed, so Nancy can’t get in. There is a riding crop lying on the dresser and I grab it and start making light, exploratory probes with it. Knowing that she’s protected by the folds of the blanket, I locate what is probably her behind and flick the end of the crop across it. “Ow!” comes her muffled voice from the depths of the blanket -- not a real exclamation, just a flat statement. Her helplessness challenges me, so I flick the whip against her again, a little harder this time. “OW!” she screams, and suddenly she is writhing free of the blanket, tears flying from her eyes as she flicks her hair away from her face. She gives me a scalding look and stomps out of her room and across the hall. She slams the door of her room behind her. I look at Nancy helplessly.

“Sometimes she just has to have a fight,” she says.

“Yeah, but I did hit her,” I answered. “It really was my fault.”

“Oh, it was your fault, all right,” says Nancy.

Friday, October 16, 2009


Like a lot of other people, over the years I've written poems for special occasions -- chiefly birthdays, weddings, anniversaries. Lest they be lost to posterity, I thought I'd better get them out there. (The dates have been omitted to protect those who are now aged and infirm.)

To Nancy, on her birthday

A lady turning thirty-seven
Deserves a little piece of heaven --
A gift, perhaps, that costs as much as
If she were a queen or duchess,
Or, at the least, a birthday luncheon
That’s fit for goddesses to munch on.
But best-laid plans of men or mice
Sometimes with fate will cut no ice;
Because my knee my weight won’t lift,
I couldn’t shop for any gift,
And cause Danielle last night went whoopsie
No birthday outing for my Poopsie.
Still, I can pen these lines to say
To wife and mom, Happy Birthday!

To Harry Wise, on his birthday

Ode: To the Late Harry Wise

It might be on the squash court
Or at a restaurant;
It might be at the tennis club
Or any local haunt.
If you’re a friend of Heshy’s,
Just try this on for size
You’ll spend some time there waiting for
The Late Harry Wise.

He’s booked a court for seven;
My watch says twenty past.
I’ve stretched and warmed up three times, now;
My temper’s slipping fast.
It’s 7:27;
Blood pressure on the rise --
Another piece of gamesmanship
By the Late Harry Wise.

I’ve hit upon a scheme I think
Might really be a winner:
Reserve a table -- nine o’clock --
When we go out to dinner.
Then tell him it’s for half-past eight.
“Eight-thirty sharp,” he sighs.
Who shows up at 9:45?
The Late Harry Wise.

A vision of the future dim
This morning came to me:
A doleful group of mourners
Standing funerarily.
The grieving widow, all the kids,
Each dabbing at their eyes.
Who’s late for his own funeral?
The Late Harry Wise.

But now, before that fateful day --
O many years before --
Your friends are gathered round to say
We wish you many more.
I hope you’re at the table for
This poetic surprise,
But I’ll start without you if you’re late:
Happy Birthday, Harry Wise.

For Mary Freeman, on her Fiftieth

Mary at 50

Write a birthday poem that's funny
Says the note from Rappaport.
"Relevant" -- right on the money
(Just be sure to keep it short)
In a vein that's light and airy,
Something altogether nifty
To cheer up our good friend Mary
Who is closing in on fifty.

Fifty, you say Mary's turning?
Cannot be! No way, Jose´!
Though it seems we've known her always,
We just met her yesterday.
She's that young Cornell alumna
Lives off Lex on Ninety-fourth,
In a nice old roomy brownstone
Just a little too far north.

Taking courses toward her Masters',
Has a house at Lido Beach,
Has a husband who's a lawyer,
Has a daughter who's a peach.
Now a second peachy daughter,
Now a son, and now another --
Her career's on the back burner,
Mary's now a full-time mother!

Years are passing, bringing with 'em
Lots of joys and lots of debt;
They could use a private income
(Harvey now is with Korvette).
All that private school tuition,
Orthodonture, doctors' bills,
Even from the pediatrician --
Korvette's future's looking ill.

All at once we're in the eighties,
Harvey's building a hotel.
Mary's now in private practice,
Prospects rosy, life is swell.
But her kids are leaving home now,
And her friends are turning gray.
Time is passing much too quickly!
It's September -- where is May?

Yet it's not a time for panic.
Mary Freeman's here to show
How to pay with grace and beauty
Debts we all to Time do owe.
As our poem at last closes,
This is what it wants to say:
You're not getting older, Mary,
Simply better, every day!

For David and Jan Gordon, on their wedding day

David and Jan

Some loves last for now and ever,
Liz and Darcy, always true.
Some are sort of now or never --
Capulet and Montague.
But for you, all sunny weather,
Not a quarrel, not a rift.
May your happy days together
Last as long as does this gift.

For De Witt Snodgrass, who has just sent me his book of poems titled "Mexican Dance Suite" (mine is in the same meter)

To De Snodgrass

I’m in love with your Mexican Dance Suite --
It’s a metrical, technical neat feat!
Let me add, though I’ve no urge to repeat,
It was fun from beginning to end.

And of course it was beautifully printed;
On typography, you’ve never stinted.
It’s a rare mix of arts, newly minted --
I’m honored to call you my friend.

Oh, but what will you do for an encore?
Say which popular forms will you next score?
Rap, rock, folk, heavy metal, or all four?
A poetic, synthetical blend!

I can’t wait to find out what you’ll do next.
Please, De, send me posthaste any new text.
I assure you, if not I’ll be sore vexed --
Now I’ll just say so long until then.

Dialogue with Danielle (literally; she wrote the first one, I the second, when she was in high school)

You [my Socrates
Reflecting mirrored . . . moon]
Look here from afar;
I [the apprentice
Changing form of playdough]
Ride the falling star.

I [your old man
inordinately fond of Q & A]
smile toward the mountains as
You [once apprentice, now disciple]
ride the flubber like an astronaut into the thinning air.
Falling stars burn out young, but rising ones
are hard to catch. Better just to listen as
they sing into space.

A Sonnet to Josh Gladstone and Kate Mueth, on the occasion of their marriage

To Josh and Kate, not one impediment
Would we admit. Their love’s too true for that.
Their wedding cup contains no sediment,
No sweat-mark stains the band of their love’s hat.
Despite the nepotistic state of mind
Involved in casting the director’s squeeze
As female lead in Summer ‘99
They handled all the challenges with ease.
So yet another HSF romance
Has blossomed here along with Heather/Dave,
Dave/Amy, and the others in love’s trance --
Gladstone and Mueth are fast each other’s slave.
They’ll bear it out e’en to the edge of doom,
But I, I find, have now run out of room.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Suppose you were following my directions to our house in East Hampton, and I had told you to stay on Stephen Hands Path until it dead-ended. You're on that road and you come to a fork at which sits this sign. Which way do you steer?


Despite the clear indication that you should bear left, Stephen Hands Path is to the right.

I realize that I've been preoccupied by signs lately; this is my third blog on them. The first dealt with the inexplicable grammar of a New York City parking sign, and the second with a threatening billboard posted by the Southampton Police Department showing a cop aiming a radar gun as if it were a Glock.

Of course, all English teachers are interested in signs; we're trained as semioticians (semiotics is the study of signs; same root as in "semaphore"). But road signs are more than just a subset for me; they constitute an index to how much a local government prizes its citizens.

New York State spent a lot of money over the past few years on large, elaborate message boards displayed on its parkways and highways, designed to inform motorists on traffic conditions ahead. Virtually all of them have stopped working. The one on the southbound Cross Island Parkway, which lets you know whether the Long Island Expressway or the Northern State Parkway is moving better, has never worked. Now there are signs only a year old on the parkways that are supposed to give you the time in minutes to a particular destination depending on which of several routes you take, and only one in ten seems to be in operation.

In East Hampton, main thoroughfares are labeled at every intersection, I guess to reassure you that you're still on the same road you've been on (which comes in handy if you take the left fork on Stephen Hands). But only about half the cross streets are identified. What's that about? Is the reasoning that anyone who would want to go to McGurk Street already knows where it is? On Memorial Day weekend, the roads are like a demolition derby, as renters try to figure out where they are and how to get where they're going -- making U-turns, swerving toward and then away from intersections, screeching to sudden stops. The locals have no patience at all for these tenderfeet (who, of course, support the local economy single-handed); they tailgate them, leaning on their horns, laughing all the way.

I guess it's a lost cause in this economy; no one is going to undertake an ambitious program of studying and replacing all the signs on all the roads in the state. So my tip of the month is, buy stock in GPS; it's becoming indispensable.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I'm a secular Jew. But my father's family wasn't secular. My grandfather was a founder of the Zionist movement, and my father, who was fluent in Hebrew, lent his support to the Irgun in 1948. So, in my half-assed way (never been there, never planted a tree), I've always wanted Israel to flourish, and for Palestinians to abandon their insane insistence that it disappear. But the Palestinian in the picture doesn't conform to my mental image of Hamas fanaticism. She looks like a defenseless old lady with troubles of her own who's resigned to being bullied by an Israeli thug with nothing better to do than test her patience. It's always bothered me when Europeans (particularly Brits, because I'm an Anglophile) side with the Palestinians, as when Vanessa Redgrave made her famous remark about "Zionist hoodlums"at the Academy Awards, as when British universities recently tried to shut Israeli professors out from international scholarly discourse. But if this picture shows us what it's like to be a Palestinian on the West Bank, I begin to comprehend the urge to lob a few rockets at Israeli settlements. Why is the guy walking around with a glass of wine in the middle of the day, anyway? Getting wasted? Or looking for a target of opportunity?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


The inn formerly known as the Maidstone Arms has pruned a couple of its limbs and re-opened simply as Maidstone; the dining room has metapmorphosed into The Living Room. Change is obviously the order of the day. On a recent weeknight, four of us investigated chef James Carpenter's take on "New American with a Scandinavian twist." The Maidstone's website is proud to claim the restaurant's inclusion in the "slow food" movement, which is not a warning about the service but a commitment to everything that "fast food" is not -- they use locally grown produce, they smoke their own Norwegian salmon, they use sustainable ingredients like the salmon caviar that appears in several dishes, and there are eco-friendly touches like filtered water in place of the bottled stuff.

The restaurant is a little on the tight side, the tables slightly too small for the freight they have to bear, the servers forced to slalom through the spaces between them. But our waitperson was attentive, friendly and knowledgeable; when we asked a question about the food that she couldn't answer, she went back to the kitchen and got the information from the chef. We did have to ask (just once) for bread and for our second glass of wine to be poured, but on the whole the waitstaff coped well with their full house. The sound in the room was bright but never approached the kind of eardrum-puncturing din that some other restaurants register and even promote.

The wine list is weighted toward American wines, many of them local, with an excellent selection in the $30-50 range. We started with an old favorite, Wolffer's crisp and fruity rosé, which we drank with the appetizers, and then moved on to an excellent Castellare Chianti Classico, neither of which broke the bank. At those prices, it makes more sense to order by the bottle than pay double digits for a glass. There are some more formidable European vintages as well, for those who require them, of course; that's where a restaurant's profit is.

It's in the appetizers too, all but one in the two-figure range. We passed on the spinach soup garnished with a hard-boiled egg filled with caviar, though it sounded interesting, and opted for four from the menu, all of which were winners. We had a roasted beet salad with Valencia oranges and fennel, the sweetness of the beets offset by a little wedge of Camembert sitting on top. Then came Swedish råraka, tiny potato pancakes like Mother's, only better, garnished with crème freche and salmon roe, though $18 for four silver-dollar-sized cakes seemed excessive. This was followed by a dish that promised some drama: tarte flambé with Norwegian smoked salmon and crème freche (also $18); we were a little disappointed to find that it was essentially just a pizza, "flamed" in the kitchen, not at the table, but a couple of bites of its thin, tender crust, the creamy, salmony topping baked in, mollified us. Everyone's favorite app, though, was the fava bean ravioli in tomato bacon broth, the ravioli itself, perfectly tender, surrounding its fragrant filling, a relative bargain at $16.

But the main courses proved to be the weakest part of the menu. Only one -- the roasted rack of lamb with basil-infused crust, at $34 -- pleased all our (admittedly carnivorous) palates -- the lamb full of flavor but not gamy, and cooked precisely as specified. We dutifully ordered the vegetable Napoleon (the cheapest entrée on the menu at $24) so as not to shortchange our vegetarian readers, and while there were things to like about it, particularly the garnish of fresh figs that kept it awake, it was just a plateful of vegetables -- carrots, asparagus, several different roots -- in no particular arrangement. And though they were fresh and tasty, all of us would have preferred them to have been cooked a little longer, though we recognized that the crunch in the carrots was a purposeful choice by the chef, not a miscalculation. The pan-roasted halibut (a pricey $32) similarly suffered from uninspired presentation -- asparagus, carrots, cauliflower purée and a nicely browned, moist piece of fish sharing the plate like neighbors who are not quite friends. Finally, we opted for a piece of Scandinavian whimsy: "Veal Oscar" ($36), named for King Oscar II of Sweden, a 19th-century ruler who apparently enjoyed surf and turf. In The Living Room's interpretation, a tender, flavorful piece of sauteéd veal shared space with a shelled lobster claw and a smattering of sauce Bearnaise. Traditionally, it's made with flecks of crabmeat, which might have promoted better integration of the meat and seafood; as it was (here we go again), the ingredients, though individually delicious and well-prepared, didn't really meld into a coherent whole. Maybe we'd all have been happier with the special of pan-seared diver sea scallops, or the Flat Iron steak (that's from the steer's shoulder, also known as Top Blade, which, along with hangar and skirt steaks, is vying these days with the Porterhouse and shell cuts so beloved by steak-house frequenters), at $38.

At this point, we were neither unhappy nor thrilled, but the best was yet to come. Laura Donnelly, the Star's main reviewer and food columnist, doubles as The Living Room's pastry chef, and she's an inspired baker. Out came her creations, one better than the next -- the Catapano Farm sweet goat cheese tart (not too sweet, nor too tart); the Chocolate Trio (chocolate hazelnut tart, mocha mousse and chocolate mandarin sorbet, a dissertation on the variety of chocolate's tastes and textures), a raspberry and peach crisp with ginger streusal and homemade ice cream that left us gasping with delight. We also ordered a selection of ice creams and sorbets and wished we hadn't, not because they weren't excellent (the Mandarin orange sorbet piercingly flavorful), but because it meant foregoing the warm lemon pudding cake with blueberry compote. The ice creams are $6; the other desserts $9 and worth it.

The Living Room is top-tier East Hampton dining, in the company of 1770 House, Nick & Toni's and Della Femina and the stunning newcomer, Rugosa. Like those restaurants, it takes food seriously, and like them, it's not cheap; we managed to spend $100 a person (though that, of course, bought an appetizer, an entrée, a dessert and half a bottle of wine, more than any of us would normally order). At this time, unlike the other restaurants mentioned, The Living Room does not offer a prix fixe menu. On our next visit, I think we'll choose our main courses more carefully, or possibly forego them in favor of two apps. We'll resist the temptation to order every dessert on the menu. And we'll give thanks that the new chef in town is good enough to keep everyone else on their toes.

Friday, September 11, 2009


"You lie!" The ejaculation by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) during the President's speech to Congress was accompanied, on screen, by looks of alarm and distaste on the faces of Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi that suggested someone had farted. And the whole affair (including Wilson's totally disingenuous apology) has provoked a national debate on civility, or the lack thereof, in the discourse of American politics.

Rudeness is nothing new in the halls of government. Threats of violence and actual incidients of fisticuffs and caning and even duels to the death used to be common occurrences on Capitol Hill, and more recently, insult and invective have become the common currency of campaign rhetoric, to the point where no one is really surprised to hear Obama identified oxymoronically both as a socialist and a Nazi.

My Knee-Jerk Liberal response is to deplore the vulgarizing and cheapening of language and behavior, and to blame it largely on the Republicans -- well, on the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party, for whom hate speech is ofen a prelude to hate crimes (killing abortion doctors, for example). Sarah Palin announces that if Obama has his way, elderly citizens will be executed by "death squads"; Conservative talk-show hosts rile up the faithful to the point where a 9-mm sidearm seems an appropriate accessory for Americans attending a town meeting to discuss something as seemingly innocuous as the way to improve the delivery of health care. Democrats never behaved this way, I tell myself.

But it occurs to me that if they had -- if, while George II was making his bogus case for invading Iraq, cherry-picking or fabricating intelligence to support the laughable claims of cached WMDs aimed at Israel and the U.S., someone like Senator Hillary Clinton had risen during debate and in ringing tones told the President, "You lie," perhaps the slippery slope to war might have provided some traction to those (like Obama) who didn't believe Bush's claims but were, or felt, powerless to dispute them.

Bush, more than any other American president, tried (aided and abetted by Dick Cheney) to turn the office into an absolute monarchy -- to destroy the checks and balances on his power by neutering Congress, co-opting the CIA, and turning the Supreme Court (which, after all, installed him in the White House by skewing the results of the 2000 election) into an arm of the administration. But as the power of the President grew -- as he proclaimed himself not bound by Congressional limits on executive privilege, for example -- respect for him and for the office eroded. In 2003, Bush's opponents felt themselves were paralyzed by their respect for the office, if not the man. In 2009, Rex Rammel, an Idaho gubernatorial candidate, says he'd buy a license to hunt Obama and then claims he was only joking because "Idaho has no jurisdiction to issue hunting tages in Washington, D.C."

So, though it sickens me to hear people saying out loud and for attribution what was unthinkable before the New Millenium, I can't help wishing the process had begun ten years ago -- say, during the election campaign of 1999-2000. Al Gore is probably the last person one can imagine indulging in sicko verbal mudslinging, but there might have been other Democrats out there with poor impulse control and inventive vocabularies (Michael Moore comes to mind) who could have taught America just how lame, how unfit for the presidency, how untrustworthy and fundamentally dishonest George W. Bush was. And just maybe, if people of influence hadn't yeilded to the inhibitions that all civilized people used to share, we wouldn't be asking ourselves every day how we got into the twin messes of a disastrous war and a failed economy.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


At the Mulford Barn Repertory Theater in East Hampton, on alternate evenings on August, three buffoons are trashing the greatest playwright who ever lived. Don't miss it!

Actually, it's three brilliant comic actors performing The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged -- a show invented by the Reduced Shakespeare Company in England and London's longest-running comedy ever. The premise is that rather than waste one's time sitting through 37 three-hour performances of tedious old-fashioned plays, who wouldn't jump at the chance to get the whole thing over with in just 87 hectic minutes? And so Lydia Franco-Hodges, Joseph De Sane and Gordon Gray take us for a roller-coaster ride through Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, all of the comedies (rolled into one), and of course Hamlet, which gets special treatment in Act II.

I promise to try not to reveal too many of the gags, bits, or pieces of shtick that make up this hilarious evening. There's a lot of improvisation on the part of the actors, and a lot of audience participation as well. Some of the humor is fairly crude and raunchy in spots, but nothing that your kids don't hear every day in middle school; the nine-year-old girl sitting next to me was in such convulsions of laughter that I feared for her health. Nor is any knowledge of Shakespeare a prerequisite for enjoying the show, unless that little girl was an unusually precocious graduate student in theater history. In fact, the show isn't only about Shakespeare; it's also a parody of modern American culture -- of our movies and TV program, the music on our iPods, our zany pop psychology and theories of self-improvement, and of theater and performance itself, particularly the narcissism, self-promotion and sense of entitlement that acting often promotes.

The Complete Works is, from beginning to end, pure farce, which is rather rare these days, now that Monty Python is gone. Many of the jokes are verbal (you'd be amazed how funny Macbeth becomes simply because it's performed with authentic Scottish accents), but most of it is good, old-fashioned physical slapstick: pratfalls, barfing, Keystone Kops-style chases, cross-dressing (wait till you see six-foot-four-inch Gordon Gray as Ophelia drowning herself). You'd swear there were at least six or seven actors leaping, prancing, fainting, dying, and mugging on the stage, in the field behind it (visible because the back doors slide open), on a ladder at the back of the house, or in your lap.

The glue that holds this inspired mess together is Kate Mueth, the director, who is reprising her triumphant production of last summer, with the same cast. Mueth knows theater and Shakespeare intimately, as do her players. It's their familarity with the real thing that makes their satire of it so dead-on. Mueth played Miranda in The Tempest at the Hamptons Shakespeare Festival; Franco-Hodges was an amazing Hermione in The Winter's Tale, and DeSane appeared in both Hamlet and Julius Caesar on the stage of the John Drew, so they come by their acting chops honestly where the Bard is concerned. There's a moment in the Barn when Gordon Gray stops spoofing and does one of Hamlet's soliloquies seriously, and the audience, shifting gears instantly, was very moved. For the most part, Mueth wisely keeps her hands off her actors, letting them dig for their own comic moments, and the result is a short, speed-of-light laugh-a-second roller coaster ride that will leave you gasping.

On the nights when Complete Works is dark, the same actors, plus Tina Jones, perform A.R. Gurney's 1995 comedy Sylvia, which is equally worthy of your attention. Sylvia is in some ways typical Gurney -- the funny, bittersweet trials and tribulations of middle-aged middle-class empty-nesters casting about for some new meaning in their lives -- except for the fact that Greg, the husband (Joe De Sane) deals with his midlife crisis by acquiring not a Porsche but a pet. Hiding out in Central Park one afternoon from his meaningless job, he picks up (or is picked up by) a golden retriever/poodle (Jones), and it's love at first sight -- though a problematic sort of love. Sylvia, good dog that she is, worships her new owner, but Greg's passion for her passeth all understanding. His wife and his job fade into annoying distractions as he begins to live for and through his dog.

The play's continuing joke, and it's a good one, is in the perfectly calibrated performance of Tina Jones as Sylvia. Dressed in sweater, jeans and knee pads (she spends a suitable amount of time on all fours), she makes a cuddly, adorable canine, but her rapport with her owner includes the ability to hold long, intense conversations with him about subjects of interest to her: cats, kibble, the well-endowed males at the dog run. Her heart-to-hearts with Greg are partly an extension of the rapport that dog owners and their pets share, carried to extremes, but as the play goes on Greg loses his grasp of the line between a beloved family pet and a new love interest. Wife Kate, a potentially thankless role into which Lydia Franco-Hodges breathes life, predictably comes to see Sylvia as a rival, and wages a relentless campaign to save her marriage by banishing her to the pound. At first, Greg's love affair with Sylvia (which never, thank God, crosses the line between petting and you-know-what) seems harmless and Kate curmudgeonly; by Act 2, when he's quit his job and is thinking of leaving Kate and moving into a studio with Sylvia, we realize there's some real pathology working itself out. In the play's most hilarious scene, Gordon Gray, as an ambiguously-gendered cross-dressing Viennese therapist, tries to make Greg own up to his obsession, and ends up counseling Kate to divorce her husband and shoot the dog. But all ends well; no animals are harmed during the performance of the play.

In the original production, the role of Sylvia was created by Sarah Jessica Parker, and her success in it probably had a lot to do with her being cast in her next project, a TV show called . . . oh, yes, Sex and the City. So Tina Jones has some big Blahniks to fill, and she has the paws to do it. Her doggy mannerisms -- the scratching, the prancing, the tail-wagging -- are dead on, but at the same time you're always aware (or at least I was) that she's a babe, and that when she stands up on her hind legs and slobbers all over Greg's face, or lies on her back so he can tickle her belly, there's something else going on besides human-animal bonding. (Sylvia's language is often R-rated, as well; maybe you should leave the nine-year-old home for this one.) In addition to the therapist, Gordon Gray plays a female friend of Kate's (he's the company's specialist in female impersonation) and the macho Tom, owner of the virile beast who deflowers Sylvia behind a bush in the park, and, as in Complete Works, the audience starts to laugh whenever he steps onto the stage. Joe De Sane makes Greg both a little geeky and very human, and Franco-Hodges manages the difficult feat of transforming herself from annoying to sympathetic with grace and humor.

So Mulford Barn Rep takes both ends of this double-header. It's not often that a concentration of talent like this company is so readily available. Summer stock in most places is an endless parade of Noel Coward minus the crackle of wit and old musicals minus the true voices. The East Hampton Historical Society (which administers Mulford Farm and parents Mulford Barn Rep) and Ms. Mueth deserve our thanks and our applause, and I'm sure both Shakespeare's ghost and PETA will be pleased as well.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Ten years ago, I was teaching an introductory composition course a branch of the City University of New York, which pretty much epitomizes urban public higher education. The student body was composed largely of immigrants or the children of immigrants: Russians whose families ran importing businesses in Brighton Beach, Koreans whose parents owned vegetable markets on Atlantic Avenue, black and Latino kids from tough ghetto neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, almost all of them the first members of their families to attend college. In English 1, when I asked them to write about their lives, what I often got was narratives of crime, with which, usually as victims but sometimes as perpetrators, they claimed to live on intimate terms. This was early in the Giuliani administration, before felony rates in New York began to decline dramatically, and the city’s parks, streets, tunnels and minority neighborhoods were still synonymous to most of America, and indeed the world, with lawlessness and peril. I think my kids wanted to impress me with the grittiness of their lives -- the crack houses, the drive-by shootings, the muggings and beatings that seemed to be woven into the fabrics of their young lives. And often I was at least semi-convinced, even by Jimmy Wang (not his real name) who wrote plausibly of his on-going attempt to resign from the Ghost Shadows, a Chinatown mob whose activities closely resembled those detailed on The Sopranos and who, he claimed, were determined to kill him rather than let him secede.

Most of the other students in the class accepted the law of the jungle with resignation and equanimity. The way of the world was opportunism, competition, the strong preying on the weak; human life was, as Thomas Hobbes put it, nasty, brutish and short; they couldn’t imagine a place where that wasn’t the rule. I could, however, having owned a small second home in Springs for twenty years. On an impulse, I typed up and distributed to the class three items from the Star’s police log for the current week, and asked them to compare them to three typical crime stories from the Post or the News and then to write an essay about what they felt they could conclude about the differences between Brooklyn and East Hampton based solely on this evidence.

The New York newspaper stories they came up with were predictably horrific: a child slain by a stray bullet, someone pushed by a stranger under the wheels of a subway train, the Abner Louima torture case which was then in the headlines. These played off nicely against the items from the Star, which I had chosen with some care. The first reported that after the girlfriend of a Springs man had left him, her mother had repeatedly telephoned him, “threatening and yelling.” The second recorded the fact that for-sale signs kept disappearing from a property on Fairlawn Drive in Montauk. The third read, in its entirety,

An Egypt Lane resident called police Saturday afternoon to turn in a group of boys playing football on the lawn in front of Hook Mill. They were not breaking any law, however, and police declined to interrupt the game.

The results were illuminating. Some of the students had heard of the Hamptons, but only as a playground for the rich and celebrated; they never imagined that ordinary life went on there, and certainly not life as ordinary as the police log suggested. The were baffled both by the innocuousness of criminal activity on Eastern Long Island and by the fact that anyone would take the time to read about such trivial events. In the classroom discussion that followed the assignment, some accused me of having manufactured the news -- of foisting on them an imaginary Utopia of middle-class white homeowners living lives of stultifying if harmonious security. If the events had actually happened, they were cause for scorn: you call that “crime”? Hector, both outraged and amused, couldn’t get over the wimpiness of a grown man calling the cops because an old lady had yelled at him over the phone. “What is point of taking for-sale sign?” demanded Sergei. “Is prank? Act of revenge? Why not blow up car or set fire to house?” And as to the touch-football caper, the whole class, even the girls, threw up their hands and rolled their eyes. Boys who broke no windows, trespassed on no one’s property, set off no fireworks, stole nothing, sassed no one, merely whiled away an afternoon throwing a football around -- and some guy dials 911? What lesson, asked Jamal, were those kids being taught? If they got rousted for playing sports, what happened when they did things that were really fun, like hanging out in parks and parking lots all night, smoking weed and listening to rap?

I was forced to admit that I had to an extent misrepresented East Hampton, by deliberately not choosing reports of higher crimes and misdemeanors (though in truth, the worst offenses recorded that week were two obscene phone calls made to identical twins and a license plate stolen and found the next day by the side of the road). Yes, I confessed, from time to time bad stuff happened out there -- murder, arson, theft -- as it did everywhere else, but no one was going to nickname the Town Police Department “Fort Apache,” like that fabled besieged precinct in the Bronx. And I assured them that East Hampton was not a fantasy oasis of peace and amity, but closer to the norm of American life, which was at that time still lived more in small towns than urban jungles.

I no longer teach at Brooklyn College, so I can’t really judge how the perceptions of its students about their city and human behavior have changed, and what they would make of the Star’s crime beat these days, which features (along with occasional horrific stories like the murder of a wife by her husband) reports of growing ethnic friction on the East End, which make it sound a lot more like the world in which my students lived. And the more perceptive of them might point to the corresponding gentrification of some of those tough New York neighborhoods -- Harlem and Red Hook and even Midwood, where the college is located. Midwood in the 1960’s was largely a middle-class Jewish and Italian neighborhood; its public high school graduates went to the nation’s top colleges. Then began “white flight,” and by the 70’s it had become a black ghetto; I remember a number of gun incidents at Midwood High, and it wasn’t safe to park your car on the street even in daytime. Now Midwood is being re-colonized by white middle-class home buyers who can’t afford Manhattan, and there are animosities between these newcomers and the people they’re displacing.

What does it all add up to? That two communities which ten years ago seemed like polar opposites are becoming more and more alike -- the sleepy hamlet not so sleepy, the mean streets not so mean -- so that ten years from now, if the trend continues, only topography and architecture will distinguish them? The immigration debate is as alive here as it is there; will Springs become the new Crown Heights? I don’t know what it all means, but it occurs to me that I might have planted a seed by assigning that paper: maybe Jimmy Wang decided that East Hampton might be a good place to start over, change his name, open a plant nursery or landscaping business.

Monday, July 20, 2009


The newly-refurbished John Drew Theater at Guild Hall is presenting Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie as its first full-scale production. And judging from the enthusiasm of the opening-night audience, both the play itself and its star, Amy Irving, were inspired choices.

It's possible that The Glass Menagerie was not the play, or even the kind of play, that Williams was trying to write. He thought of it as daringly experimental theater -- what he refers to (and even has one of the characters refer to) as a "memory play," at the opposite extreme from the "the straight realistic play with its genuine frigidaire and authentic ice cubes." Of course, straight realistic plays were and are the backbone of commercial theater (unless the theater is south of Houston Street in Manhattan), and aside from some faintly surreal and metadramatic touches in the lighting, music, use of a projection screen and on-stage narration, what Williams wrote was pretty much a slice of dysfunctional family life, set in a generic urban tenement neighborhood of St. Louis in the years just before World War II.

The Glass Menagerie introduces us to Amanda Wingfield and her two grown children -- Laura, the shy, ethereal daughter who walks with a limp and lives not in the rough and ready world outside the flat but in the ethereal realm of her delicate collection of glass figurines (the menagerie of the title), and her brother Tom, who supports them by working at a dismal job he despises, chafing under his mother's nagging and pretentions, spending hours each night at "the movies" (movie theaters that serve drinks, apparently), and dreaming of escaping to a life of adventure, like the runaway father and husband whose picture sits on a table in the living room. Amanda, too, lives in a dreamworld, the Mississippi delta of her girlhood, with its plantations and servants and lemonade served on the veranda where she made vivacious conversation with multiple beaux.

The Wingfields' desperation is palpable, especially Tom's, but it is tempered by the fact that the play is narrated by Tom from a future years later -- which is partly why Williams (and Tom himself) refer to it as a "memory play." Whatever lies in store for these people has already happened; Tom has escaped to the Merchant Marine, abandoning Amanda and Laura to their unspecified fate. Thus, everything that transpires on stage, however sad, acquires a patina of nostalgic recollection. The plot, such as it is, concerns Amanda's plan for her and Laura's survival: Laura, unable even to learn basic secretarial skills, must, in Amanda's view, find a genteel swain who will marry her and support both of them. This provokes in Amanda herself a constant reverie featuring honeysuckle trees, porch swings, and particularly that memorable day (it's a memory play for her, too) on which no fewer than seventeen "gentleman callers" came to call. Amanda describes these stalwarts in detail -- their brilliant marriages, the romantic duels they fought, and above all, the fortunes they made or inherited. But though they came to call, none of them stayed; Amanda fell for and married a penniless romantic wanderer who left her and the children high and dry in the alien world of gritty urban poverty (brilliantly suggested by Beowulf Borrit's half-realistic, half-dreamlike set) in which her memories and values now seem absurd and high-falutin'.

All of this works beautifully on the John Drew stage, thanks to director Harris Yulin's decision not to indulge the play's dreamy potential but to keep things moving smartly along. Sad though the story is, the acting is forthright and bold, and there are even some laughs along the way. Ebon Moss-Bachrach does a fine job with the difficult, somewhat underwritten role of Tom, half Mama's Boy and half adventurer; he is particularly good at the narrative monologues which stud his part, to which he brings a nicely sardonic edge. Laura's collection of little glass animals may have been meant to symbolize her fragility, but Tom seems fragile too -- a young man going nowhere, unable to leave and confront his destiny and equally unable to stay. Louisa Krause's Laura isn't too shy to establish a forceful and convincing presence onstage, and John Behlmann, the Gentleman Caller whom Tom recruits as a possible suitor for his sister, is just as Tom introduces him: a high-school hero struggling to cope with the cold, indifferent adult world.

But this is Amy Irving's show, and she gives a wonderful performance on many levels. You can see why she drives Tom crazy with her southern belle shtick -- she'll drive you crazy, too, with her voice alternating between stridency and melliflousness and her inability to keep her fussy hands off the lives of her children. But there's another side to her. Williams said, "There is much to admire in Amanda, and as much to love and pity as there is to laugh at," and Irving is the first Amanda who ever made me feel the latter as strongly as the former.

Amy Irving's performance is reason enough to see this show, but it's more than just a star turn. The Glass Menagerie calls for ensemble acting supported by carefully calibrated setting, lighting and music, and that's what's it get here. This is the play that made Tennessee Williams famous, and you're unlikely to find a production of it anywhere that's as good as the one that graces the John Drew's stage.


Richard Horwich lives in East Hampton and teaches English at New York University. He was for several years the dramaturg of the Hamptons Shakespeare Festival.

Monday, July 13, 2009


My secret life has been pretty much exposed: for the past two years I've been writing a play. Its working title is The Merchant of Venice, Act Six, which gives you some idea of both its content and, if you know me at all, how it dovetails with the rest of my life.

And I guess the title is self-explanatory: it picks up the action of Shakespeare's Merchant where Act 5 leaves it. But isn't that the end of the play, you ask? Well, yes, but Shakespeare's comedies are famous for their irresolution; there are always more questions than answers. That's why, back in the 1930s, the sub-genre of "problem comedies" was invented -- to describe plays in which the happy ending is problematic. The most famous examples are Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well, but Merchant finds its way into the category by virtue of the fact that the three marriages that end it are each made at least as much for money as for love. So I thought it would be interesting to look at the three couples (plus poor Antonio, who at the end of the play is rich but single) a year later, and see what accommodations they've made.

The problem with my own problem play is that I couldn't have written a less commercial piece of theater if I'd set out to do it. Unless my audience is fairly familiar with Shakespeare's work, they'll have no idea what the questions to which I'm supplying answers are. So I've brought in a technological solution. I've set my play in the present, in order to make it possible for a huge TV monitor to dominate the set, and on this screen, periodically, excerpts from Shakespeare's Merchant appear, to introduce and provide exposition for my own scenes.

Whether this will work or not remains to be seen. The first half of MV6 was given a reading last March by The Naked Stage at Guild Hall in East Hampton, as part of an evening devoted to airing the work of new local playwrights. It was extremely helpful to me to watch and listen to an audience watch and listen to my play, and to hear their comments afterwards; I've spent the last couple of months revising. And of course, it was a thrill to hear my words spoken by real live actors -- Molly McKenna as Portia, Josh Perl as Bassanio, Melissa Herman as Jessica and Joseph Brodo as Lorenzo. I read the stage directions.

Where do we go from here? I've been sending the script to people who might be able to arrange for a reading or a workshop in New York. If there is an audience for this play, that's where it is -- the issues of both my and Shakespeare's take on Renaissance Venice have a lot to do with Jewish questions, and an audience already interested in intermarriage, dietary laws and circumcision would be of enormous help. Whatever the outcome, though, it's been fun to make a text rather than just interpret one.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Review of Are You Kidding Me? The Story of Rocco Mediate's Extraordinary Battle with Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open by Rocco Mediate and John Feinstein. Little, Brown, 2009.

Rocco Mediate is a pudgy, forty-six-year-old professional golfer with a chronically bad back, a middle-of-the-pack guy who, despite winning five tournaments and earning a respectable $14 million on the PGA tour, was anything but a household name. With sportswriter John Feinstein, Mediate has written a book about the high point of his career and indeed, his life, which was not a famous victory but a stirring loss -- coming in second by the narrowest of margins in last year's U.S. Open to the world's best player and the biggest name of all, Tiger Woods.

In the golf world, it was an epic story, even a tragic one (though more Californian than Greek): bathed in brilliant sunshine and surrounded by cameras, a likeable but all-too-human fellow finds himself in combat with a god and is destroyed, but not before he inspires us with his courage and heroism. Rocco, though, doesn't see it as a defeat. In this autobiography of the Everyman who became, for a few days in June, America's sweetheart, it's not whether you won or lost but how you played the game – which was the spin the media put on it. Rocco wasn't invented by television, but the tube played a huge part in fashioning his image. In his on-course interviews during and after the tournament, he came across as bubbly and outgoing, "a loose and easy motormouth" as he puts it, and golfing America took him to its heart. An anti-elitist bias was obviously working for him: Rocco, of humble blue-collar origins, has nothing to do with the snooty country-club mystique. Johnny Miller, the TV analyst for the tournament, got into trouble when he said that Mediate looked more like "the guy who cleans Tiger's swimming pool" than the guy who was contending for the Open title (a remark that offended not only pool cleaners but, less explicably, Italian-Americans across the country.) Everyone could identify with Rocco's giddy pleasure at being just where and what he was, a man testing the boundaries of what had previously seemed impossible, who was able to savor the moment without the dry mouth and sweaty palms that make so many of Tiger's opponents choke, gasp, and give up. It's axiomatic that having Woods as a playing partner in a tournament makes other players worse; it seemed, during the one-on-one Monday playoff round, that Tiger was making Rocco better -- until the 19th hole when, in sudden death, Rocco faltered and Tiger, as he always seems to, prevailed.

The section of the book that is devoted to a day-by-day and, toward the end, a hole-by-hole and even shot-by-shot account of what happened on the course is an exciting read, even for those whose interest in golf is minimal. John Feinstein, who is given equal author's billing with Mediate, has written many acclaimed books about golf and other sports, including the classic A Good Walk Spoiled and Caddy For Life, a moving account of the bond between the great Tom Watson and his doomed caddy Bruce Edwards as Edwards lost his battle with ALS. Feinstein knows how to capture golf's quirky, maddening beauty and drama, and he tells a story vividly and economically.

But the first half of the book, which details the thirty years in Rocco's life that led up to his moment in the sun, makes for some problems. The loveable Rocco we saw on television in 2008 is not quite the Rocco who grew up rudderless and clueless, who lucked into golf with talent to spare but without the work ethic that Tiger brought to the game. Rocco struggled for many years with back problems that sometimes made it impossible for him to play for months on end, and he acknowledges that his aversion to working out, plus the 60 pounds that he gained over the years, exacerbated them. He married and fathered three sons, but as the book goes on, Linda and the boys gradually fade away, until it becomes clear that he's pretty much walked out on them. Rocco, for all his openness, seems as self-centered as, say, A-Rod; it's often All About Him. Sitting around his hotel room during the Open, Rocco's caddy, who's feeling sick, says he's going out for some water, and clueless Rocco says, "I don't need any water."

Eventually, another woman enters the picture -- Cindi, the personal trainer who did what all the surgeons and doctors couldn't do: trace the source of Rocco's back problems to a tilted pelvis and design a regimen that made him, for the first time in 20 years, pain-free. There was obviously more going on between them than a client-provider relationship: most people don't notice whether or not their trainers possess "the kind of smile that lights up a room." Yet just how close they were is left ambiguous. She flew to tournaments regularly, and "She did become my best friend very quickly," he says. It’s pretty clear that they were sharing hotel rooms by the time the 2008 Open rolled around. Were they lovers? "The simplest answer [to the media's questions about Cindi's role] was that she was his physical therapist," we're told, but the more complicated answer is left to the reader's imagination. Toward the end of the book, in passing, we learn that Linda and Rocco have divorced, and Linda is quoted, poignantly, to the effect that though she wanted Rocco to do well in the Open, "I couldn't help but feel that none of us were there with him -- on Father's Day. That part was tough." Cindi was with Rocco the whole time, despite the fact (never mentioned in the book) that she was and presumably still is married to someone else.

And of course, there's another story about the 2008 Open that Mediate and Feinstein aren't particularly interested in telling: Tiger's Tale. Woods was playing not only with a torn ACL in his left knee but a stress fracture of the leg itself; he had surgery immediately afterwards, and it was his last tournament until the spring of 2009. Mediate and Feinstein, understandably, don't dwell on the extent of the injury; they admit that Tiger was limping and that there was a current of anxiety among the television executives that he would have to withdraw, but what doesn't come through in the book is what we viewers saw every time Tiger took a full swing with his driver: the awesome torque produced as he rotated around his left knee made him stagger and clench his teeth in pain, but he still managed not only to keep the ball in the fairway but to outdrive Rocco by 40 yards.

"Nice guys finish last," Leo Durocher famously said, but there's a big difference between last and second in the U.S. Open ($810,000 in prize money, for one thing) and Rocco gave Woods all he could handle. Tiger called it his greatest victory ever, and, we're told, "In a sense, it was Rocco's greatest victory too." But like every successful sportsman, Rocco wants badly to win every time he tees it up. It's true that "people who knew nothing or almost nothing about golf now knew his name," but those people have short memories, and eventually, the name Rocco Mediate will slide from celebrity status to that of an answer to a trivia question: who was runner-up to Tiger Woods in the 2008 U.S. Open?

It's an answer, though, that the golf world, if not the general public, will remember for a long time to come, thanks in part to the ubiquity of television but in no small way to Are You Kidding Me? What Rocco did on five days last June defined the tournament, the course, and both Woods and himself, adding to Tiger’s legend and building a niche, small but permanent, for the man who described himself oxymoronically but accurately as a "second-tier star."