Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Labels

I have been retrospectively adding "labels" to my posts, a tedious process, and to use blog-speak, a "gadget" that is not as exacting as a proper index. As a former publisher, the inconsistencies of the labeling process bother me. This is partly my own fault as the labeling was done over several months. Consequently, as an example, President Barack Obama is merely labeled "Obama" while most luminaries are labeled by first and last names, an unintentional gaffe and no disrespect intended. I suppose I assumed we all know who he is. And unfortunately, labels are alphabetized as they appear so first names prevail, an affront to any indexer. But one can scroll over the list fairly quickly although there are more than three hundred labels at this point -- they appear on the left side of the page below "Blog Archive" and "About Me."

Reviewing my four plus years of postings in doing this project I see so much of what I wrote is where the winds blew me and some views have changed. But I intended "Lacunae Musing" as an "everyman's" view of the world going by, so the windblown nature is understandable and the mere passage of time explains some changed views. More painful was to see some repetition, not remembering that a year earlier I had made the same point, perhaps in a different way. Nonetheless, I have not edited or deleted any entries. Let some future generation unwrap this as a buried digital time box. It is what it is.

I expected the blog would mostly cover my diverse interests, but I was somewhat surprised by the number of entries that relate to the economy and politics. Sturm und Drang have characterized those topics during the past few years, so that is no wonder as well. Then there was the incredible open heart surgery I went through last year, a difficult procedure complicated by traumatic intubation so one could say I write this blog on borrowed time, although I feel fine now. Amazing having gone from this:









to this "self portrait" taken during our recent cruise:










As an eclectic blog, "Lacunae Musing" does not have the level of page load activity associated by niche oriented blogs with a dedicated readership. But that's OK by me as I write this mostly as a personal journal and as a creative outlet. Sometimes I wonder if I never did this, and concentrated that same energy in other pursuits, such as the piano or even writing a novel or a play, something I've been tempted to do, perhaps that might be a better use of my time. Or maybe this blog is my excuse for not doing something even more challenging. One will never know unless I find the path to an alternative universe.

However, while writing this blog, I did manage to dramatize four Raymond Carver short stories which I entitled When We Talk About Carver. This consists of dramatic readings of "Want to See Something?" and "Gazebo," each preceding a play adaptation, the former with "Put Yourself in My Shoes" and the latter with "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" -- perhaps Carver's best known story. As the production requires only two male and two female actors, I thought it would be ideal for smaller theater companies. This required getting permission from the author's estate and the approval (with revisions) of the author's widow, Tess Gallagher, which was finally successful. But my quest to place the play, even for a reading, has come to naught, and it is a lesson learned about how the system "works" (publishing in my days also had its "system" equally difficult to crack). I had naively believed that Carver, as one of the 20th century's greatest short story writers, and my painstaking attempt to use his exact words in the adaptation, would ensure, at least, a placement with a knowledgeable but small non-profit theatre. That is not how it works, and so I can imagine what the outcome might be if I was the author of a play rather than merely the adapter of a writer of Carver's prominence. It is disheartening, but a learning experience. But learning even with disappointing results is better than standing still.

Also, I've managed to keep up with my musical interests, working on several musical programs as I am a volunteer pianist at a local rehab center as well as at a retirement home. The latter gig is particularly fulfilling as I prepare specific programs, my first being the music made famous by Frank Sinatra, followed by one focused on the works of George Gershwin. The Gershwin program was challenging as it required a solid hour of playing his wonderful melodies, including those from Porgy and Bess which are among my Gershwin favorites. I'm now preparing programs by Rogers and Hammerstein (my next), to be followed by an all Steven Sondheim program, and finally a "British / French Invasion of Broadway" program, works by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claude-Michel Schönberg.

So, "Lacunae Musing" continues to be one of many pursuits, and managing its time requirements is a constant battle. Consequently ,when I started this, I consciously turned off the comments feature of most blogs. However, an email address is included in the "about me" section, so there is a way for people to contact me and I've received many emails over the years and responded to all.

I integrated a "statcounter" about a year so I have a rough estimate that there have been almost 20,000 "hits" since the beginning, most of those from Google phrase searches but almost an equal number from searches of Google Images as I have hundreds of photos in the blog. Unfortunately, BlogSpot is not very user friendly for photographs. I would have carried more otherwise. And there are mysterious inconsistencies with photographs in the blog. Some can be easily enlarged by clicking onto it, and others cannot, even though I treat all work on photographs the same way.

It's been an interesting journey and now with the label "index" I can see the breadth and the focus (or lack of) more clearly. Whether you are a return visitor, or happened to just land here, I hope you find it useful or interesting. I doubt whether I will be able to keep up the pace of writing as I don't want to repeat much of the family history and I might take a little more time to smell the roses, but with the political season heating up, there will be unavoidable fodder for writing. Then, too, there will be more theater, the books I'll be reading, and future travel, whatever suits my fancy. Truly an eclectic journey, one person's views and experiences. Hopefully, it has some relevancy in the real world.

While writing this entry we had a rare concurrent visit of both our sons, our oldest, Chris, celebrating a birthday and so we went to one of our favorite local restaurants, Captain Charlie's Reef Grill. This is a down to earth, funky, lively restaurant with some of the best and most imaginative fish dishes anywhere. One can make a meal of the appetizers, each a unique creation. Part of the fun is even waiting for a table outside in the balmy Florida night. They don't take reservations. They don't have to. People will eagerly wait. We went on a Saturday night, happily passing the one hour wait time sitting on the outside chairs, while others were waiting in a separate bar they maintain a few doors down in the unassuming Juno Beach strip mall where the restaurant is located. The waiters and waitresses have been there forever and they've become old friends. It is a place to see and be seen and the desserts are fabulous such as their chocolate mousse b-day cake!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

RED at Jupiter's Maltz Theatre

I didn't expect to write this, hoping for merely an enjoyable Friday night at Jupiter's Maltz Theater to see one of our subscription plays, in this case Red. I knew something about the play, that it is about art, the same general subject as portrayed two nights earlier at Dramaworks, in their fine production of The Pitmen Painters.

So I suspected the plays might invite comparison, but I was determined to take a break from "reviewing." But here I am at 5.00 am getting down my thoughts without the benefit of any notes which I usually take during the evenings we're at Dramaworks. Such is the burden of an obsessive compulsive.

Not only the plays invite comparison, the theaters do as well. We've been subscribers to the Maltz since the first day it opened ten years ago, having been awed by it's opening play, one that we thought "set the stage" for what would follow in their future seasons, Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz. Consequently we eagerly bought season tickets that night and have done so every year. If I was writing this blog then, I would have posted something extensive about that Pulitzer Prize winning play, a true story of a cigar factory in Tampa in the late 20s (also based on historical fact) that employed lecturers to read classic literature to the workers who were mostly illiterate but came to appreciate great literature while they were working. Their emotional transformation while listening to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is nothing short of electric, mesmerizing theatre. And it is a very sensual play with passionate interaction between characters.

Although always impressed by the level of professionalism exhibited by the Maltz since then, we have at times been disappointed by their choice of properties. Each season there would be a plum of a play, perhaps suitable for Dramaworks as well, such as their production of Master Class, Terrence McNally’s Tony prize-winning play about the great soprano, Maria Callas or The Tin Pan Alley Rag, a dramatic depiction of a fictionalized meeting between Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin, or last year's production of the classic Twelve Angry Men. But interspersed are productions that pander to popular taste. If we wanted to be merely "entertained" we could always go to a movie.

Until seeing Red, we were actually thinking of reluctantly cancelling our season's tickets and just going to the few plays we think worth the time to see. But Red reminds us of an obligation to support serious theatre in South Florida, especially after the demise of Florida Stage where our prepaid subscriptions turned into those of an "unsecured creditor "and the recent financial difficulties of the Caldwell (to which we do not have season's tickets but occasionally go).

But as I said, Red invites comparisons to The Pitmen Painters which we had seen just two nights before. The Ashington artists were uneducated, neophytes to art, their artistic egos as fragile as butterflies whereas the ego of the artist in Red, Mark Rothko, fills the stage and the entire auditorium, with some left over for the parking lot. The nature of art is also discussed in The Pitmen Painters but on an elementary level, befitting the nature of their primitive or folk art while art is discussed in its most intellectual and symbolic form in Red befitting the modern impressionistic works of the highly experienced Rothko. It's not that one art is better than the other (and personally, I like the more traditional art of the Ashington group, although appreciate abstraction as well), but it is interesting how these two plays approach a related subject and how the dramatic experience effects us. They challenge us to think about what art means, to us as individuals and to society.

Red is about the real life abstract impressionist Mark Rothko (Mark Zeisler), and the drama springs from his relationship with his young assistant Ken (JD Taylor), fictionalized by the play's author, John Logan. What happens between the time Ken is hired by Rothko who emphasizes that he is an employee only, not his student, not his son, not his patient, to the moment when Ken is finally fired by Rothko is 90 minutes of uninterrupted highly charged drama. Red leaves us stunned and even tearful at the end, a dramatic transformation of two men, the artist and his young assistant. Yes, only a two character play with such power.

And "red" is discussed in its many manifestations, as in different shades of that color, and black overtaking red, Rothko's metaphor of death overtaking life. Meanwhile it connotes something entirely different to Ken who, as a seven year old, witnessed the aftermath of his own parents' murders, saw the dark blood, still sees it and imagines (in his own paintings) what the murderers might have looked like. A perfect element for Rothko to connect with Ken on a human level, but can he, does he?

Rothko is a depressive misanthrope, railing out at others who fail to recognize his greatness and who fail to understand what art really is about while Ken has the buoyant innocence of an aspiring artist, secretly hoping to learn from the master, and to be appreciated by him. Rothko has been engaged by the architect of the Seagram's building, which houses the Four Seasons restaurant to paint their murals. And there is the conflict, art vs. commerce, something Ken the student sees, argues with Rothko to see, but it is not until Rothko himself goes to the Four Seasons for dinner that the realization that he is prostituting his soul sets in. He describes his visit with a misanthropic distain for the other diners, their wealth, their dress, their judgments, their small talk, all the vacuousness we have come to despise about modern society itself.

It is a stunning turn of events on stage, and after two years (in 90 minutes) Ken is fired, hurt, bewildered, demanding to know of the master, why, why, why. At first Rothko stays within his curmudgeonly demeanor, but finally looks at his assistant and painfully says, I am setting you free, to be with people your own age, to experience your own art. Ann and I knew we had just shared one of those special theatrical moments.

The quality of the acting, the stark staging of an industrial warehouse, the lighting which seamlessly highlighted the paintings or the action, was executed with such expertise that the audience could just dwell in the production, experiencing what only live theater can provide. The two roles were so very different, with such diverse demands, that they are hard to compare. JD Taylor perfectly plays the starry-eyed, eager-to-learn, but ultimately disillusioned Ken. Mark Zeisler has the task of playing the Herculean Rothko and has to modulate an almost stream of conscious intellectual banter about the nature of art while screaming invectives about his competitors (cubism before abstract expressionism and then the drip painting of Jackson Pollock and the pop art of Andy Warhol) and his distain about the art "public." Art and the character are almost inseparable, one inhabiting the other. The role's difficulty and how it is portrayed lead to a few discernable moments of hesitation on Zeisler's part, something I find rare on the professional stage, but understandable given the nature of the role and how people really talk.

We usually like to arrive at a theater early enough to read the program, and this was the other odd thing about the evening. The program had no information about the play's author, John Logan (or did I miss it?). This is a brilliant and passionate piece of writing, one that precisely reflects Rothko's inspired work, so I thought this apparent omission very bizarre. Wikipedia to the rescue. Logan is primarily a screenwriter, with such credits as The Aviator, The Gladiator, and Hugo, among others. Not surprising, Red was the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Play. One hopes he returns to playwriting again.

As I noted, Andrew Cato, Maltz's Artistic Director, is trying to walk a fine line between appealing to everyman (what he calls family theater) and serious theatre. Maltz has the advantage of having a stage suitable for musical productions as well and there, too, it waivers between adult musicals such as its past exceptional productions of Cabaret, Man of La Mancha and Evita, and frothy "fun" musicals, pabulum some South Floridians apparently crave. We wish they would stick more with the former (do we really have to see the Music Man again next year?). While tempted to choose only the plays we want to see, live theater needs support, so we will renew again, hoping for thoughtful productions in the future. Such as Red. See it!
Abstract rendering of a photograph of a South Florida moonrise

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Pitmen Painters Portrayed by Dramaworks

The life of a miner is like no other. Miners are born into a mining family. Their fathers did it before them and their fathers before. It was the lucky son who broke away, but most miners did not leave, could not leave, and they slogged through their days, and those who did not die because of mining accidents, could be expected to die at an early age because of black lung disease from coal dust, or live with emphysema or chronic bronchitis. As hostile as the environment was to the body, it also wrecked the soul.

The Pitmen Painters is a true story about English miners who in 1934, with the assistance of the "Workers Educational Association," engaged an academic art teacher, Robert Lyon, for an "art appreciation" class, but as these workers had never even seen a painting, and didn't have the vocabulary to discuss painting, Lyon turned it into a class of "doing" painting instead of teaching. Their first assignment was to paint something that relates to their work, which of course is the only thing they ever had known. From that point they went on the most unlikely artistic journey as a group, which is what the play is all about, unleashing their individual creative spirits. Although the painting miners embrace their new passion, they still go back to the mines to work each and every day.

The play is by Lee Hall, creator of the film and musical Billy Elliot. Hall grew up in Northumberland in northeast England, the home of the great mines that fueled the industrial revolution. By chance he came across a copy of The Pitmen Painters by William Feaver in the bin of a bookshop on the Strand near Covent Garden, a familiar a scene to me as our UK publishing distributor was at 3 Henrietta Street and I can imagine his thrill discovering the work nearby. The play was inspired by Feaver's history.

It is an interesting choice of properties by Bill Hayes, the Producing Artistic Director of Dramaworks which is in the middle of its first season at its new theatre on Clematis Street, also its most successful season, artistically and commercially. The basic staging is a simple barren brick meeting hall of the Ashington miners which serves perfectly for the many scene changes in conjunction with the overhead visual projections which illuminate the various paintings that scroll by during the evening.

And the play is brought to life by its director J. Barry Lewis, taking full advantage of Dramaworks' new larger stage and its new audio visual technical muscle, with the "help" of the Production Stage Manager, James Danford, who thinks of his role during rehearsals as "executive secretary" but on opening night is promoted to "Captain of the Ship." And, indeed he is Captain (although, as a disclaimer, we saw the first preview; opening night is not until tomorrow) as the play progresses through a fluid chorography of audio visual montages. In other words, the scenic design is an ever changing one, the timing of the changes critical to the movement of the play and the role of the actors. At a "lunch and learn" before last night's first preview, J. Barry Lewis noted that "the design of the play is a work of art itself." Indeed it is, and its intricate interactive nature will undoubtedly improve with the passing of repeated performances.

There are many themes that Hall deals with, class immobility, socialism, the drudgery of the mines juxtaposed to the ethereal nature of art, but the tension of the play comes from the rights or expectations of the individual vs. the group and Hall combines this with a shrewd sense of humor and timing. In fact most of the play's miners frequently have comic roles in contrast to the one who succeeds most as an artist, Oliver Kilbourn. I loved the exchange between Oliver, the "student" and Robert the "teacher" who, when sketching Oliver, is criticized by Oliver for not capturing his essence as a human being. The student becomes the teacher. Societal class becomes topsy-turvy.

As the art establishment eventually "finds" the Pitmen Painters -- and they had a number of exhibits which encompass much of the play -- their fame gives Oliver an opportunity to leave the group to become a professional artist when he is offered a stipend, more than he is paid in the mines, by a wealthy art benefactor, Helen Sutherland. This becomes the core dramatic element of the play, as Oliver agonizes about leaving the group and everything he knows -- after all, mining is his "family" -- and the group itself debates on whether that is proper and who "owns" the paintings, the individuals, or, as is argued by George Brown, who represents the Workers Educational Association, the Association itself. Ironically, Oliver meets a professional painter he has admired, Ben Nicholson, a member of the British educated class, and who is also the recipient of a stipend from Helen. But it is Nicolson who professes his admiration of Oliver as he is "free," unbounded by the shackles of being attached to a patron. So Oliver does not become dependent on Helen and remains the "miner-painter."

After WW II the group eagerly looks forward to the benefits of socialism, the National Health Service, and the continuing support of the Workers Educational Association. But change is underfoot and by 1984 the group is disbanded, but not without their realization of what art has meant to their lives, as a group and as individuals. In our own economic times, when government is so eager to undermine the support of the arts under the guise of economic prudence, there is much gleaned from this play.

I offer an observation which is not a criticism per se, but a characterization of the play. When towards the end Oliver again meets Helen at one of the exhibits of the Ashington miners, she is more critical of the group's work, saying it lacks a certain "sexuality" or passion. The play itself leaves something wanting in that area. It is a wonderful dramatized story, well worth the 2-1/2 hour running time, including intermission -- and never a dull moment -- but Pitmen Painters is not great drama per se. Nonetheless, Dramaworks makes it great theatre.

Professionalism characterizes Dramaworks' productions and this is no more evident than their choice of actors, in this case all members of Actors' Equity, and many veterans of previous Dramaworks productions or other South Florida stages. Foremost, is Declan Mooney's heartrending portrayal of Oliver Kilbourne's journey from naiveté to knowledgeable artist. He is the dramatic center of the action. Two other Dramaworks veterans, Dennis Creaghan (George Brown) and Colin McPhillamy (Jimmy Floyd) demonstrate outstanding comic timing which is so important to the play, the perfect offset to the weighty themes of the production. John Leonard Thompson (Robert Lyon) plays his role as the London art instructor with intensity and sensitivity toward his unlikely students, a stark contrast to his role as "Teach" in American Buffalo, showing his range. Newcomer to Dramaworks (but highly experienced actor who acted once with my heart-throb, Ann-Margret) Rob Donohoe (Harry Wilson) is perfect as the impassioned Socialist who remains a member of the group even though he can no longer mine as he was gassed in WW I and has a breathing disorder, becoming, instead, the group's "dentist" providing still other comic opportunities. Joby Earle competently plays two roles, "the Young Lad" and Ben Nicholson, and last but not least, the two women in the play, Kim Cozort (Helen Sutherland) and Betsy Graver (Susan Parks), were professional in every way and incandescent against the stark stage in their costume designs by Erin Amico.

And kudos to the Dialect Coach, Ben Furey, who helped to make the Ashington accent believable but intelligible to the South Florida audience, and the actors who assimilated that difficult accent.

Yet another memorable night at Dramaworks, South Florida's finest theatre.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Operation Sail Bicentennial

It is a never ending cornucopia of photographic treasures I still continue to uncover decades after my father's death. I had thought I had seen them all, but found another box marked "pix from Dad's room" squirreled away in a remote part of a closet. Many are old family photographs but some are of the city he worked in all his life, New York, and, particularly, several 8 x 10's of the Operation Sail Bicentennial, all taken from the air. I have no idea whether he just knew a photographer who took these and my father only developed and printed them at his commercial studio or whether he himself did the photographing as well as the printing (they are definitely prints from his studio). A few are just too iconic not to publish in some way, so I've scanned them, including one of the twin towers majestically overlooking the Hudson River only a few years after they were completed.

World Trade Center, Bicentennial 1976

USCGC Eagle and the USS FORRESTAL, Operation Sail Bicentennial 1976

Statue of Liberty, Bicentennial 1976

The Christian Radich, Operation Sail Bicentennial 1976

Verrazano Bridge, Bicentennial 1976

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Cruising and Reading

Put me on a boat (a ship in this case) and give me a book and I am a happy man. And that about describes last week's cruise to places we've been before, San Juan, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten, the ship, Celebrity's Solstice, being a destination onto itself. We planned this trip with our good friends, Art and Sydelle, a couple we met on our very first cruise out of Ft. Lauderdale in 2000 on the Century. They are retired NYC teachers. If it were not for meeting them, becoming good friends, it is unlikely we would have taken last week's trip.

Travelling with them is an endless feast of chance meetings of acquaintances from their childhood, or from their days as teachers. They both grew up in Brooklyn, became engaged while at Brooklyn College, and Brooklyn folks from those days are like a tribe. Many have now migrated to South Florida, the starting point of the cruise. It's like radar; they can look at another couple and identify them almost instantly and, then, chances are they either know them or someone in common. ("Hey, I went to New Utrecht HS in Bensonhurst. We beat your school, DeWitt Clinton for the 1953 Championship at Madison Square Garden in overtime!")

Contrast that with us. I like to say I'm from NYC, but I grew up in Queens which any true New Yorker will tell you was a place where people lived who aspired to move to Long Island. Ann grew up in Atlanta although she moved to Manhattan sooner than I did. We rarely encounter people from our past.

And, if it were not for the fact that we celebrated out 40th wedding anniversary on board the Solstice two years ago, which, for us, lived like a small ship as we were in their "Aqua Class" category and loved the experience, we also would not have gone on this cruise: the ship and category being the main reason.

I like to joke that the main benefit of "Aqua Class" is being able to swim alongside the ship (rimshot, please, ba-dum-TSH), but we normally like to travel on smaller ships, and although the Solstice is 122,000 tons, accommodating 2,850 passengers and a crew of 1,500, it "lives" like a smaller ship. One of the reasons is their "Blu" dining room, available only to Aqua Class (about 150 staterooms so designated). Therefore, Blu is less frenetic than the Main Dining Room which serves the remaining passengers - with the exception of several specialty restaurants which all have an extra charge. The food in Blu was uniformly excellent, geared to a more healthy life style, smaller portions but beautifully presented. The dining room itself becalms the occupants, large windows, with the sea rolling by, uniquely shaped plates, and the signature white rose sculpture on the wall. Breakfast is served there too with the same relaxing ambiance.

Another desirable feature of the ship is the solarium, with pan flute music in the background, spa like cuisine offered for breakfast and lunch, dancing waters display, it's own pool and Jacuzzi, with very comfortable lounge chairs for relaxing or reading, and although this section is available to all, no children allowed! We're always amazed that more people do not seek out this section of the ship, but I suppose most booking a Caribbean cruise are seeking the sun and the tumult of the main outside pool. We're glad they do.

Another nice feature of Aqua Class is the availability of the heated tile beds, a perfect place to lie down and absorb the heat on tired muscles and listen to the soft, unobtrusive music. An easy place to fall asleep, as Ann did on several occasions. My own routine was to start the day at the gym as the sun rose, trying to get in at least a half hour on the treadmill at jogging speed, something to challenge my new unobstructed arteries and to neutralize the diet which, although "healthy" is far richer than I'm accustomed to.

So much of the days at sea, and even some of those in port, were spent in the solarium where I could dig into a good book. Reading preparation is a fun part of the trip for me as I can get a lot read on board, more so than I can at home. I was eagerly looking forward to making my main read Sondheim's second installment of his composing life, Look, I Made a Hat. I had read his Finishing the Hat, remarking that it was "one of the most remarkable documents of the theater that I've ever read."

However, when I picked up Look, I Made a Hat, its sheer heft of almost three pounds acted as a deterrent, not wanting to lug it around on such a trip. Also, it is a beautiful book and the thought of reading it in a wet bathing suit was abhorrent. If I haven't succumbed to a Kindle, I'm not going to desecrate an exquisite book as well.

If the Sondheim book was not to be my main read, I needed another from the stack of books I sequester for future reading. Or, to use a baseball analogy, I went to the bench and called up another heavy hitter, Jane Leavy's The Last Boy; Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood. I had been introduced to Leavy's other biographical work on Sandy Koufax by our traveling companion, Artie. Leavy's biography of Koufax was excellent; The Last Boy is a work of great passion and meticulous scholarship.

How do you write an objective biography of a legend, one who you've worshiped as a kid? That was Leavy's challenge. But by telling the truth, Mantle with all his foibles, and there were many, she actually enhanced the legend.

Mantle's career in some ways is a real life version of Bernard Malamud's The Natural, published in 1952 only a year after Mantle's rookie season. Roy Hobbs is shot by a strange woman, while Mantle has his knee blown out by a drainage ditch in Yankee Stadium chasing a fly ball and trying to avoid running into the Yankee patrician, Joe DiMaggio, playing out his last year. Mantle and DiMaggio were never friends. Unlike Hobbs, Mantle did not have a "Wonderboy" bat, but his "Wonderboy" was a surfeit of guts. He played hurt when today's ballplayers would be seeking R&R. He played with a family history of illness and early death, and battled osteomyelitis throughout his career.

The book is as much a love affair as it is a scholarly biography, successful on both counts. And for me, it conjured up my own childhood, my own worship of Mantle, and my own indebtedness to baseball. As I was always one of the smaller kids in my neighborhood, I could not hit for power so I became a pitcher, and a crafty lefty has some advantages. At first I copied Eddie Lopat, one of the "Big Three" of the Yankees' pitching staff, which included Allie Reynolds and Vic Raschi in the early 50's. Lopat was known as "the Junkman." He was small for a pitcher and did not have much of a fastball, so specialized on the slow curve, thrown at different arm angles, and the screwball, and so did I. Another lefty, Bobby Shantz, became my hero in high school, after he was traded to the NY Yankees from KC. and like Lopat he used crafty off speed pitches to his advantage. In fact Shantz was one of the Yankees interviewed for Leavy's biography, one of about one hundred. Those names brought back memories of those glory days when the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers all played in NY and we argued about who was the greatest centerfielder, Mantle, Mays, or Snider. I think Leavy answers that question (read the book to find out!).

Leavy's work is more biography than a recounting of the great baseball moments of the Mick's life, although it is that too. Mantle came from a dysfunctional family, the father controlling his life (before and after his father's early death). What "Mutt," the Mick's father thought or would think became pivotal to Mantle and one of the factors of Mantle's alcoholism. And Mick was a real "good ole' boy" a carouser who felt most comfortable with the guys in the locker room and not with his family. Even after hanging them up, he spent more time on the road, frequently with other women leaving his wife at home. He paid. His family paid. But one thing about Mantle in addition to his baseball ability, he was loyal to his friends, fiercely loyal, and generous as well. Overall, you have to admire him, and hats off to Jane Leavy for a brilliant biography, walking the line between adulation and scholarly criticism. And Leavy went one step farther in analyzing her subject, by bringing in experts on the mechanics and the physics of the sport.

As a poor hitter in my brief baseball career, I always wondered how in the world anyone could hit a fast ball being thrown only sixty feet away, and downhill from a mound as well. And how could anyone hit it like Mantle. To answer that question, Leavy interviews experts, concluding that Mantle hit "with felonious intent:"

In an effort to pin down how Mantle generated such power, I asked Preston Peavy, a techno-savvy hitting coach, to analyze Mantle's form, using the visual motion-analysis system he created for his students at Peavy Baseball in Atlanta. He converted film and video clips of Mantle into a set of kinematics, moving digital stick figures that show the path of each part of the body as it moves through space...(To view the kinematics, go to www.peavynet.com or www.janeleavy.com.)

A 90-mile-per-hour fastball doesn't leave much time for thought. Traveling at a rate of 132 feet per second, it makes the sixty-foot, six-inch journey from pitcher to batter in four-tenths of a second. The ball is a quarter of the way to home plate by the time a hitter becomes fully aware of it. Because there is a 100-millisecond delay between the time the image of the ball hits the batter's retina and when he becomes conscious of it, it is physiologically impossible to track the ball from the pitcher's hand to the catcher's glove. David Whitney, the director of the Vision and Action Lab at the University of California, Davis, explains: "A 100-millisecond delay doesn't seem very significant. But if a baseball is traveling at 90 mph, that translates to around fifteen feet. If we perceive the ball fifteen feet behind where it's actually located, the batter has to start his swing very early on in the baseball's trajectory."

Neurologically speaking, every batter is a guess-hitter. That's where implicit memory comes in. The ability to infer the type of pitch and where it's headed with accuracy and speed is inextricably linked with stored experience-the hitter has seen that pitch before, even if he can't see it all the way. Add the reflexes to respond to that memory and a visual motor system that allows the batter to react on the fly to a change in the trajectory of a flying object, the right DNA, and Mutt and Grandpa Charlie out by the shed throwing tennis balls, and you have Mickey Mantle.

Every at-bat is a dance of double pendulums. The pitcher leads, using his body as a kinetic chain to deliver energy from his legs through his trunk into his shoulder, arm, and, finally, the ball. The batter follows, reacting in kind. The converging and opposing forces may or may not be equal, but the goal is the same-to turn potential energy into kinetic energy as efficiently as human physiology allows.

The pitcher has the inherent advantage of foreknowledge-he knows •what he's going to throw-and he has the downward slope of the mound to generate momentum. With only flat ground and muscle power at his disposal, the hitter creates force by twisting his upper and lower body in opposite directions like a rubber band. When that human rubber band is stretched taut and is ready to snap, it uncoils, propelling the bat through the strike zone.

This deceptively simple act is an intricate biomechanical task requiring the coordinated mobilization of virtually every muscle in the body in than a second. "Everything but the chewing muscles," said Dr. Benjamin Shaffer, a specialist in orthopedic sports medicine and head physician for the Washington Capitals. "Unless you grit your teeth."

Nobody gritted more than Mantle. Lefty or righty, he swung with felonious intent.


I just could not get enough of The Last Boy, and even read the Acknowledgements, Appendices, and Bibliography in detail. I did not want it to end, but it did, as did the last boy's life, riddled by cancer, and not long after he had successfully ridded himself of alcoholism. Moose Skowron, Hank Bauer, Whitey Ford, Johnny Blanchard, and Bobby Richardson (who was then a minister) were with him near the end, but he was with his son, David, and his wife Merlyn at the very end, dying on Aug. 13, 1995.

Such a downer, so I turned to a novel, How To Be Good by Nick Hornby, an English writer. I had picked this up because Jonathan Tropper is touted as "the American Hornby" and as I admire Tropper, I had to see/read for myself.

And I can see why there is the comparison: like some of Tropper's work it almost reads like a screenplay with a similar sardonic sense of humor. And like Tropper it is a fast read, a story of midlife crisis and its effect on the nuclear family. As the main character says: "We are the ideal nuclear family. We eat together, we play improving board games instead of watching television, we smile a lot. I fear that at any moment I may kill somebody." Interestingly, it is written in the first person by the female protagonist. How Hornby can do that so effectively is a mark of a good writer, although at times I had the problem of thinking to myself, is this really how a man might think about how a woman thinks?

But it is the humor, or the truth in humor that is Hornby's strong point, such as his riff on organized religion, as expressed by our heroine, Katie, who in the midst of her crisis decides to go to a church, any church, with her daughter, Molly, although she has rarely gone to church and needs to pick one randomly. She describes her experience after arriving at a nearly empty service at a local Church of England ("C of A"):

I start to drift off. I have never been to an ordinary church service before. I have been to weddings, funerals, christenings, carol services, and even harvest festivals, but I have never been to a bog-standard, nobody-there Sunday service.

It all feels a long way from God-no nearer than the bring-and-buy sale would be, and much farther away than I imagine Molly's friend Pauline is at this precise moment. It feels sad, exhausted, defeated; this may have been God's house once, you want to tell the handful of people here, but He's clearly moved, shut up shop, gone to a place where there's more of a demand for that sort of thing. And then you look around and wonder whether the sadness isn't part of the point: those who are able to drag themselves here once a week are clearly not social churchgoers, because there is nothing social happening here. This isn't a place to see and be seen, unless opera glasses are placed on the backs of the pews. You'd have to walk twenty yards to shake somebody's hand. No, these people are the hard-core, the last WASPs in Holloway, the beaten and the lonely and the bereaved, and if there is a place for them in the Kingdom of Heaven, they deserve it. I just hope that it's warmer there than here, and there is more hope, and youth, and there is no need for bring-and-buy sales, and the choir of angels isn't singing elsewhere that day, but you rather fear it might be; C of E heaven is in all probability a quarter-full of unhappy old ladies selling misshapen rock cakes and scratched Mantovani records. Every day of the week, for all eternity. And what about the nice lady reading the notices to us? Is she ever dispirited by her hobbling, careworn flock? I thought that I could detect a touch of weariness, maybe even despair, during the appeal for flower arrangers, but maybe this is because flower arranging is not her thing.


Despair in humor. You get the point. As to the rest of the novel, a worthwhile read, no sense going into more detail here as reviews are readily available on line. I'll read another Hornby book again.

I finished my trifecta of books during our seven day cruise by going from the satiric to downright despair, the path of Philip Roth's most recent, novella length works, and in this instance his The Humbling. In a sense it completes the circle, the sunshine of youth as Mantle emerges from the playing fields of Oklahoma into the big leagues, the midlife struggles of the modern family in London, to the "loss of magic," decline at the end of life of Simon Axler, a famous stage actor who suddenly loses his acting abilities, a metaphor for life, and tries to resurrect a life with a woman twenty five years his junior, the daughter of one-time friends. As Axler's agent reasons with him, trying to convince him to see an acting coach:

Look...everyone knows the feeling 'I can't do it,' everyone knows the feeling that they will be revealed to be false -- it's every actor's terror. 'They've found me out. I've been found out.' Let's face it, there's a panic that comes with age. I'm that much older than you, and I've been dealing with it for years. One, you get slower. In everything. Even in reading you get slower. If I go fast in reading now, too much goes away. My speech is slower, my memory is slower. All these things start to happen. In the process, you start to distrust yourself. You're not as quick as you used to be. And especially if you are an actor. You were a young actor and you memorized scripts one after the other after the other, and you never even thought about it. It was just easy to do. And then all of a sudden it's not as easy, and things don't happen so fast anymore....So you start to feel afraid, to feel soft, to feel that you don't have that raw live power anymore. It scares you. With the result...that you're not free anymore. There's nothing happening -- and that's terrifying.

So it is with aging and obviously a mordant fixation of Roth in his later works, something I understand. And I guess that is why I still appreciate Roth. I've "grown up" with him as I did with Updike. Roth fights desperately against the gravity of it all, Axler seeking respite in the arms of a younger woman, Pegeen, but as Roth beautifully and concisely writes: "A man's way is laid with a multitude of traps, and Pegeen had been the last. He'd stepped hungrily into it and then the bait like the most craven captive on earth." Roth remains one of the great living American writers.

I've said little about the ports we visited, as we've been to all before, but I will say that St. Thomas conjured up feelings of our visit there almost 23 years earlier to the day, when we did a bare boat charter with our friends, Ray and Sue, visiting many of the American and British Virgin Islands. So here we were again, that many years later on a cruise ship, on the one island that is better known as a shopping port. But our bare boat adventure is imprinted in my mind and remains one of my favorite trips, leaving me to wonder why we haven't done it again.

Life on a big cruise ship is highly regimented. There are lectures, discussions, games, shows, cooking demonstrations (even hot glass blowing demonstrations sponsored by Corning on this ship), etc. and that is probably why I prefer to hide out and read most of the time. One of the exceptions was the talk by the Captain, the most personable one we've met on any of our cruises, Captain Gerry Larsson-Fedde who, unlike most of Celebrity's skippers, is Norwegian, not Greek. He gave a PowerPoint presentation with a question and answer on navigation. The gorilla in the room of course was the Costa Concordia disaster,and the question was finally asked but, as expected, Capt. Larsson-Fedde deferred. The facts are still speculative.

I think after his talk, though, it is more understandable. Capt. Larsson-Fedde described the heavy reliance by large ships on Differential Global Positioning Systems which can triangulate a position within about 4 inches. Electronic charts are constantly being updated, but only for major shipping lanes. The more a ship strays from those lanes, the more likely it will have to depend on paper charts that might have been last sounded decades ago. I recall that the Captain of the Concordia said the rocks were not on his chart. That might be, but the ship had no business being where it was.

The first mate of the Solstice followed that with a talk about the construction of the ship, an outstanding engineering accomplishment. He was there during the entire construction in Germany at the Meyer Werft yards, one of the prime companies for building cruise vessels, some 22 miles from the sea up a relatively shallow river. But this was the largest vessel they've ever built. Amazingly, bridges had to be dismantled to deliver the huge vessel to the open water. There it tested its four Wartsila diesel engines that generate 92,000 horsepower, channeled into two 20.5 MW Azipods that swivel 360 degrees to act both for propulsion, rudders, and stern thrusters.

But the most surprising part of Capt. Larsson-Fedde's "work" on the ship is that he is an accomplished entertainer and hopefully this brief clip captures that aspect of his role:




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