Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dinner With Friends at Dramaworks

Last night was the first preview, in effect a dress rehearsal, of Dramaworks' production of Donald Margulies' play Dinner with Friends. It will open tomorrow. Although a "rehearsal" the preview had all the earmarks of an opening, not a beat missed.

As my literary maturation was greatly impacted by the likes of Updike, Yates, Cheever, and Carver (each of whom wrote numerous stories about couples), not to mention having lived most of my life in Connecticut (where Dinner with Friends is set), Margulies' play strikes a familiar funny bone. I know these people. It also helps to see the play performed by one of America's finest regional theaters, Dramaworks of West Palm Beach. I can only wonder how the incredibly intimate stage of its present quarters on Banyan Boulevard will translate into their more substantial Clematis Street home next November.

On its present postage stamp sized stage, Dramaworks effectively deals with the seven scene changes required by the play in its two acts, the action shifting from the present in act one to the past at the opening of act two and then back again to the present. The scene changes are effortless as the staging is simple, using mostly three props that can be shifted from being used as table and chairs and, when put together, can be turned into a bed. The changes, rather than being an impediment, seem to move the action along in an engaging way and on Dramaworks' present stage, all of this is happening right before you, bringing the audience into the performance.

The play strikes blunt truths in the finest tradition of tragicomedy, Margulies offering up both the humorous aspects of male female relationships and the wearing of time which can lead to destructive outcomes. As Margulies said in a PBS interview concerning his play Collected Stories: "My plays are fairly diverse, but their unifying theme is loss. The characters in my plays are all dealing with change in their family life, in their professional life, dealing with their own mortality. In Dinner With Friends it's change in friendships and evolving marriages. I think that time is a player in all of my work—very palpably in Collected Stories. The ways that people deal with the effect of time, which invariably entails loss, is probably what unites all these works."
And loss pervades Dinner with Friends, newlywed Gabe (Jim Ballard) and his wife Karen (Erin Joy Schmidt) introducing mutual friends Tom (Eric Martin Brown) and Beth (Sarah Grace Wilson), the two couples becoming best, inseparable friends. But a dozen years later Tom and Beth are breaking up, leaving Gabe and Karen pitching and rocking in their wake, questioning their own relationship and facing the sudden realization of friendships ending combined with the inevitable regrets of middle age.

In Scene 1 there is manic dinner conversation between Gabe and Karen about their recent gourmet vacation in Italy, Beth listening passively, finally revealing the real reason why Tom was not there, their marriage ending. She says that Tom said "This is not the life he had in mind for himself." That becomes a question mark that looms over all the characters for the rest of the play. The shock and betrayal is best expressed by Gabe: "All the vacations we spent together at the Vineyard. How could he walk away?"

In Scene 2, the same night, Tom returns to Beth's bedroom and is furious that she has told their friends the news without him. "You've got the advantage, now....They heard your side, so they are with you....You prejudiced my case!" There is some physical violence, culminating in sex. As Tom later explains to Gabe about the incident, "Rage can be an amazing aphrodisiac!"

Scene 3 finds Gabe and Karen parsing blame, Karen wondering about Tom, "the person you completely entrusted your fate to is an imposter....Maybe he never existed before...your friend." Gabe: " You think you're safe on solid ground and it cracks open."

The opening of Act II shows the couples on Martha's Vineyard twelve years earlier, when Gabe and Karen brought Tom and Beth together. In their youthful bantering, Tom says of Gabe and Karen, after a show of how happy the newlyweds are: "Their job is to make the rest of the world feel incompetent" and in that statement lies the unspoken friction between the couples in ensuing years.

Scenes II and III are interesting as they analyze the unraveling relationship between Beth and Karen, and then subsequently Tom and Gabe. In fact, there are a number of dynamics throughout the play, between the two couples, the two spouses, and then the two male and female friends. Each of these relationships are challenged and changed. In fact, and that is the genius of the play, what is unspoken is really as important in these two scenes, as in spite of the friends' surface reassurances about staying in one another's lives (Tom and Beth now with different significant others), one knows that this friendship is irreconcilably over. Gabe sadly says to Tom, "We were supposed to grow old and fat together," Tom responding, "Isn't that just another way to say misery loves company?"

The last scene finds Gabe and Karen ritualistically making up their bed in Martha's Vineyard, Karen asking "What were all those years about?" The same question we all ask ourselves at times.

Most of us have experienced that unsettling moment when best friends announce they are separating, realizing at the same time one's own life cannot go on as before.. The play rings with an inescapable universal truth, further brought home by the fine directing of J. Barry Lewis, who has orchestrated this piece to fully express his vision: "we create family out of our friends and acquaintances....we recognize a bit of ourselves, as we attempt to engage one another in meaningful relationships to fill the powerful need for family."

The actors are all newcomers to Dramaworks, all pros with extensive credentials. Perhaps the most difficult role to play is Gabe's as he is uptight with a mess of internal contradictions, instinctively empathizing with Tom on the one hand and condemning him on the other. Jim Ballard handles the role convincingly. Ballard is multi talented in that he also has a Broadway quality singing voice having seen him play the Wolf in Sondheim's Into the Woods at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton last year

We saw Erin Joy Schmidt perform the lead a couple of months ago in Florida Stage's Goldie, Max and Milk. She was an ideal Karen, absorbing the shock of Beth's accusation of "You love it when I'm a mess...You need me to be a mess...I was comic relief," Ms. Schmidt dramatically delivering Karen's remorseful reply: "You're my family."

Eric Martin Brown was a convincing Tom, who feels liberated from what he feels was a loveless marriage: "I always felt inauthentic having this life...most of the time I was just being a good sport" (to which Gabe replies, "I thought we were just living our lives.") Interestingly, Brown attended the Yale School of Drama, where Margulies teaches (I wonder whether he was his student).

Sarah Grace Wilson is wonderful as Beth, the sorrowful little "artist" who awakens to the reality that her passion for art was just a substitute for living. And, we find out to our surprise, had a lover earlier in the marriage.

Having, myself, adapted two of Raymond Carver's short stories to one-act plays (presently waiting for permission rights from the Carver estate), each about couples, I have a new appreciation of how difficult it is for a playwright to incorporate all the elements of a great play, the humor, the tragedy, doing it all with dialog, no descriptive narrative, making the characters real, having a story the audience will hang onto until the end. Margulies' play is a master class in playwriting, justifiably receiving the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in Drama.

And I can more clearly see the incredible confluence that must happen to create great theater, the writing, the directing, the staging, the acting. It is a creative act of teamwork. Arts such as painting and literature are solitary journeys into the soul. Dramaworks knows how to bring all the necessary elements together in their productions, always mindful of its basic mission statement "theatre to think about."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watson/HAL, Come Here

How prescient, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 1968 film written by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick who was also the film's director. Clarke is one of my favorite Sci-Fi writers along with Isaac Asimov with whom I did some work on a series of reprints of science fiction classics.

I remember seeing the film when it opened, thinking "2001" an eternity from now. Man had not yet landed on the moon, there were no personal computers, cell phones, color TVs were just becoming mainstream, and "twitter" was merely a light silly laugh.

Yet Clarke and Asimov saw the future and with "Watson's" performance on Jeopardy, that future has arrived. It was Asimov who once said: "I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them." But should we?

As "rational" human beings we have been perplexed by Watson's answer to the question under the category of US Cities, coming up with "Toronto???" instead of Chicago (which the two all-star Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter Jeopardy challengers knew). How could it come up with a city in Canada?

David Ferrucci, the manager of the Watson project at IBM Research, comes up with the rational explanation:

First, the category names on Jeopardy! are tricky. The answers often do not exactly fit the category. Watson, in his training phase, learned that categories only weakly suggest the kind of answer that is expected, and, therefore, the machine downgrades their significance. The way the language was parsed provided an advantage for the humans and a disadvantage for Watson, as well. “What US city” wasn’t in the question. If it had been, Watson would have given US cities much more weight as it searched for the answer. Adding to the confusion for Watson, there are cities named Toronto in the United States and the Toronto in Canada has an American League baseball team. It probably picked up those facts from the written material it has digested. Also, the machine didn’t find much evidence to connect either city’s airport to World War II. (Chicago was a very close second on Watson’s list of possible answers.) So this is just one of those situations that’s a snap for a reasonably knowledgeable human but a true brain teaser for the machine

While getting the answer wrong, Watson playfully bet $947, knowing it had a large lead and losing that amount it would still likely win.

But I hearken back to the movie and Watson's prototype, HAL 9000, and his "interview" with the BBC:

BBC Interviewer: HAL, you have an enormous responsibility on this mission, in many ways perhaps the greatest responsibility of any single mission element. You're the brain and central nervous system of the ship, and your responsibilities include watching over the men in hibernation. Does this ever cause you any lack of confidence?
HAL: Let me put it this way, Mr. Amor. The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.

And yet after killing the crew, Dave only remaining, HAL admits: Look, Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill and think things over. I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I've still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you. He made "poor decisions" and has "enthusiasm?" But no computer "has ever made a mistake or distorted information."

Putting on my Sci-Fi hat, I would like to think that Watson's "Toronto???" might be a very human "in-your-face-I've-got-you-beat" answer. As further evidence, Watson's meager $947 bet.

HAL: Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave? Stop, Dave. I'm afraid. I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm a…fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you'd like to hear it, I can sing it for you.
Dave: Yes, I'd like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.
HAL: It's called "Daisy". [sings while slowing down] Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do. I'm half crazy, all for the love of you. It won't be a stylish marriage. I can't afford a carriage. But you'll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two

But I agree with Ken Jennings: "I for one welcome our new computer overlords,” provided we keep the upper hand! "Daisy, Daisy...."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Copeland Davis Redux

Last night we attended a performance in our subscription series to the Florida Sunshine Pops Orchestra, always a delightful time with a fine orchestra backing up, usually, Broadway-tested singers. These performances, including last night's, are normally under the direction of the orchestra's maestro, Richard Hayman, who is now in his nineties and enjoying his well earned reputation as one of the legendary arrangers of songs from the Great American Songbook.

A talented husband and wife team, Bev and Kirby Ward, joined the orchestra to perform a Dancin' and Romancin' program, a fitting one for Valentine's Day, organized around the music of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers era. Ironically, the Wards, unknown to us at the time, were our neighbors when we lived in Weston, CT (they in adjoining Wilton). The story of how they met and became a team is fascinating. They put on quite a show, lots of Gershwin, singing and dancing with a great orchestra behind them, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable and professional performance.

The evening also belonged to the guest artist, Copeland Davis. When we first saw him a couple of years ago, I said "Remember that name, Copeland Davis....I will go out on a limb and predict that Copeland Davis is destined to go way beyond the Florida market." Apparently, since then he's appeared on the Tonight Show as well as Good Morning, America. It's nice to see such a prediction come true.

It seems like Davis raised his level of playing even further, if that is at all possible. With his first piece, Fly Me To the Moon, accompanied by the orchestra, he seemed to devour the piano, attacking it, producing his unique fusion style of classical and jazz. Then he followed with a solo piece, My Funny Valentine (what else on Valentine's Day?), a memorable rendition, the melody so clear within his jazz phrasing. His last piece of the night was Satin Doll. I like the way he begins to play the piano in the process of sitting down, as if he is saying "let me at it." Satin Doll is in my own repertoire, and I play it often as an exercise in dropping the fifth when playing chords in the bass. The difference between my rendition and Copeland Davis' is like comparing a Model T to a Lamborghini.

He is a marvel to hear and to watch. As Richard Hayman joked, but in humor there is much truth, he is able to play at such a level even though his fingers are still attached to his hands. As Davis played his solo, Hayman just stood at the podium shaking his head, saying, at the end, "you never know how Copeland will play a piece until he just does it." He is that kind of musician, unique in every way and with an impressive, upbeat stage presence. Catch one of his performances if you are in South Florida.


Conservative Media Goes Rogue

Recently I was trapped in traffic in my car, channel surfing for news on the Egyptian revolution, and came across a Fox funny person, Glenn Beck. I should have surfed on by, but was fascinated by his off the wall comments -- which admittedly I am probably taking out of context as I only listened to him for a couple of minutes -- but if I understood the thesis correctly, Obama's secret agenda ( as a "community organizer") is to organize the youth of the world (evidence: Obama appealing to "the youth of Egypt" during the crisis) in an attempt to encourage some sort of a new Industrial Workers of the World? Did I hear that correctly? And what does Beck have against youth?

Between Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh (BP&R), a flood of bizarre assertions have been made about Obama's motivations, and the conservative media is drowning in their spewed sewage. It is one thing to call Obama incompetent, or having the wrong priorities (neither true for the most part, at least in my opinion), but to foster these conspiracy theories is quite another. No American president has been so reviled by conservatives and, frankly, I can't figure out why and how the conservative movement thinks it can benefit from this kind of extremism, other than selling more newspapers, books, and media time.

No doubt, there is a buck to be made by BP&R and conservative leaning media, particularly Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation which now owns Fox, the Wall Street Journal, and the book publisher HarperCollins, just to name a few. This media giant can now create persuasive circular arguments, hiring Sarah Palin as a Fox News Contributor, having HarperCollins publish "her" book, the Wall Street Journal and other media quoting the wacky output of this celebrity politician, and, then have Fox News quote the WSJ. Murdoch began turning the UK's newspaper industry into sensational tabloids at the end of the 1960s (with the kind of blaring headlines as seen here in Piccadilly Circus when we first visited London after we were married) and some of the same methodology seems to be migrating to more recent ventures.

However, to my surprise, I read Michael Medved's opinion column in yesterday's Wall Street Journal discussing this very issue of the demonization of Obama -- and a "fair and balanced" one as well (maybe I'll keep my subscription after all) -- Obama Isn't Trying to 'Weaken America'.

Of course, as a conservative commentator, Medved fears that the BP&R's fixation on Obama as an evil-doer will ultimately be the ruination of Republican chances in the 2012 election. He rightfully points out that while the history of the presidency is fraught with mistakes, essentially the office has been occupied by people of good intentions. I could argue that although Nixon's presidency might have begun there, it ended in the office's worst betrayal, but I agree with Medved that the presidency's history "makes some of the current charges about Barack Obama especially distasteful—and destructive to the conservative cause."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Marina Maiden Voyage

I've been unable to post the past few weeks as we were on the maiden voyage of a beautiful new ship, Oceania's Marina, the first built by Oceania, who's current fleet is made up by the smaller ships of the Renaissance Line which ceased operations about ten years ago. Although the Marina is now Oceania's largest ship, it is still relatively small by today's mega cruise ship standards, "only" 66,000 tons, 785 feet LOA, and 105 foot beam.
No rock climbing walls, water slides, ice skating rinks, merry go rounds, etc. on the Marina. This ship was built to the exacting standards of adults who like some of the traditional touches reminiscent of what it was like to cruise in the halcyon days of trans Atlantic crossings, before jet travel almost destroyed the industry, and before Disney-like, mega ships made the cruise industry a mass market destination. (Think of the difference between Masterpiece Theater's recent Downton Abbey and the movie Rambo.) I will defer my comments on the details of the ship as they can be easily gleaned from Oceania's website.

My entry is about the voyage itself and what it meant to us. Our cruise began in Barcelona, the ship having just been delivered from an Italian shipyard, so we flew overnight from Atlanta to meet the ship. We had visited Barcelona before so decided to go directly to the ship this time, after a brief bus tour on the way, which took us past throngs of visitors to the unfinished church La Sagrada Familia by Catalan architect Anton Gaudi. They had opened the church free of charge to all that day and it seems like everyone in Barcelona was there to show their respect and express their awe.

After boarding the Marina, we quickly learned the distinction between a "maiden voyage" and an "inaugural cruise." Maiden voyage is AKA a shakedown cruise. There were dozens of subcontractors on board the ship and over breakfast one morning, one said to me, imagine you built a brand new house and just moved in. That is what a maiden voyage is like, attending to all the last minute details that, no matter how good the builder and the architect might be, are still waiting to be observed and tested.

Compound this by putting your "new house" on the ocean, and it becomes a self-contained city that must manufacture its own fresh water, handle waste, supply its own propulsion and electricity, etc, and then be able to deal with the potential vicissitudes of what the ocean might throw your way. He said that part of their presence on board was not only to help with whatever issues arose, but to educate the crew and officers. There were lectures each day being given by the subcontractors in a private boardroom. When you think about all that could go wrong, in retrospect it is adventuresome for passengers to book a maiden voyage, particularly one scheduled to cross the Atlantic, eight days of running new engines and systems 24x7.

It is also a floating hotel, new staff, new kitchens, new housekeeping facilities. We were surprised to learn that some of the new staff had never served on a ship before. A young man from South Africa admitted he had never been on water, so it was no surprise that it took him a couple of days to get his sea legs, especially as those days were so windy and rough (20 foot seas in the Med) that we were unable to dock at our first scheduled port of Malaga, so we headed back out to sea. I made it a point to regularly check with our young South African friend who was assigned to the dining room and the buffet to clear tables to see how he was getting along and as the seas calmed, he beamed more and more, especially looking forward to our ultimate destination of Miami. South Beach, here he comes!

Actually, if I had to point out one subtle aspect of the staff on board this new ship it was how they interacted with each other. Of course you expect them to be courteous and friendly to the passengers, but they also seemed to have a great esprit de corps, always smiling, helping the other. That is where the fine training of the Oceana line showed. The ship is also stately, traditionally designed, beautiful woods, and large windows to bring in the light. Nothing garish here, other than the Martini Bar, but that, too fit in with the theme.

I'll also briefly point out that the cuisine and service on board were excellent, four specialty restaurants to choose from at no additional charge. In fact, to make up for some of the minor inconveniences of the maiden voyage, Oceania served wine and cocktails at meals at no additional charge, something that was unexpected and appreciated by all.

Perhaps the worst seas were as we transited the Strait of Gibraltar, that narrow funnel connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea, where the saltier Mediterranean works its way westward below the Atlantic's flow, the less dense and less saltier Atlantic flowing eastward. Add to that mix the 50 mile per hour winds at the time, and the seas built, with one particularly large wave that knocked everyone over who were sitting on heavy high backed stools at the piano bar (thankfully, there were no injuries). These seas gradually abated as we approached our second scheduled port (now our first), Casablanca, the economic (but not the political) capital of Morocco. Fortunately, the weather was nice for our tour of the city, although in the back of my mind was the Egyptian uprising which was then underway in Cairo, not to mention the Tunisian riots. However, the poverty in Morocco, at least what we saw, is not as oppressive as in other Arab countries. According to Matt Schumann of Morocco Board "Moroccans love stability." Everywhere, though, one can see photos and posters of the current King of Morocco, Mohammed VI.

Casablanca reminded me of parts of Istanbul, with a moderate Muslim population. One thing in common too is the beautiful Mosque in Casablanca, one of the largest in the world, the Hassan II Mosque, built to overlook the Atlantic ocean which can be seen through its huge glass floor. Between the Mosque and the courtyard it can accommodate over 100,000 worshipers. It has the tallest minaret in the world. We were allowed in part way. I was carrying around the sheet music of "As Time Goes By" hoping to play it at Rick's Cafe, which of course is merely a recreated version for silly American tourists such as myself (I think the cafe is now in its fourth iteration), the film of course having been entirely shot in a Hollywood studio, so I finally decided to defer a visit. Actually, my favorite part of the tour, other than the Mosque, was the central marketplace, where real life takes place in the heart of Casablanca.

An amusing sidelight was a quarrel between our tour guide and the bus driver as the bus approached an underpass on the busy streets of Casablanca. The bus had the option of avoiding the underpass by going up the side road, but that would have meant more traffic and he clearly wanted no part of that. The tour guide seemed to be warning the driver (in Moroccan Arabic of course) that there would not be enough clearance for the bus, so as the driver approached the underpass, he stopped the bus, got out, and eyeballed the heights of each, cars behind blaring their horns, and he made the executive decision to proceed (by that time he would have had to back out100 yards of highway with a multitude of cars behind, so it was an expedient decision). We slowly crawled forward, the bus driver's smile beaming as we proceeded without incident until the scraping and crunching of metal against cement reverberated throughout the bus. Recriminations and hysteria erupted between the two. I had visions of waiting hours for another bus, walking this exhaust-fumed filled tunnel in Casablanca. (Perhaps letting air out of the tires might help?) However, since we were able to transit part of the way in, logic had it that we might be able to back up (with a little crunching) which we did to the extent that cars behind allowed. A policeman finally showed up (lucky for us, but not for the bus driver as it turned out) and was able to halt traffic so we could make our slow backward escape and, when free, the bus was ordered to pull over so the poor driver could be cited. Not a good day for him.

Back to the ship, we disembarked for our next port, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain, in the Canary Islands. Tenerife is a volcanic island, with black volcanic sand on some beaches, but also beautiful sandy beaches imported from nearby Africa's Saharan desert. Our tour took us to the Village of Taganana which is high in the Anaga mountain range, also stopping at Pico del Inglés with views of the northern part of the Anaga mountain range somewhat shrouded in mist. Here we sampled local wine, goat cheese and delicious olives which no one could stop eating. Finally, on the return to the ship we toured San Cristóbal de La Laguna, which used to be the capital of the Canary Islands in ancient times.

That evening the ship cast off her lines for the 3,500 mile trip across the southern Atlantic. Many on board were concerned that the rough seas of the past couple of days would shadow us, but this is the time of the year when that would be the exception in this part of the Atlantic and in the following days the seas calmed to the point I could have taken my old 15' Boston Whaler across without incident (other than trying to hold enough fuel!).

This was our third Atlantic crossing. The first one was in 1977 when we took the old QE2 across. I was attending the Frankfurt Book Fair but thought I'd bring Ann (and Jonathan, who had just learned to walk), first to London via the ship and then finally flying home. I was intent on making the journey once in my life just to experience this mode of transportation, taken by countless travelers for centuries before, that I thought would completely disappear, not foreseeing the days of an entirely new leisure cruise industry with numerous "repositioning" cruises across the oceans.

The QE2 cruise was interesting on the one hand and a disaster on the other. It was still in the days of classes. I remember going off to dinner, we to the second class restaurant, dressed up, but rather informally, while those in 1st Class were off to dine in their formal finery, buttoned up in their tuxedos and gowns. One of my publishing competitors was traveling that way. We respectfully nodded to each other, but of course that was the extent of it. Sort of like opposing WW I pilots saluting one another in the sky. I liked 2nd class! On the other hand, the trip was in October, with traditional fall storms forming and blowing across the Atlantic, and the stately old QE2 was not stabilized, so the ship rolled for days, to the point of everyone getting seasick. Our poor son, who had just learned to walk, had to relearn after disembarking.

Things have drastically changed in the leisure cruise industry. Oceania has tried to retain some of the niceties of cruise years gone by, such as afternoon tea, but of course, other aspects of cruising are more egalitarian (other than the size and position of one's cabin). Many cruise lines have made their ships destinations onto themselves, sort of like giant floating theme parks, definitely not for us.

So what does one do for eight days at sea? The ship provides all sorts of entertainment (at night) and activities by day. Also, as the days became warmer, the pool area became an attractive destination. One could always tell who lived in cold climates as they squeezed in as much sun time as possible. Many chose to play games, bridge being popular and now Mah Jong as well (Ann being one of the movers and shakers organizing games each day, sometimes winning as much as $2.00!) She also attended the "Bon Appétit Culinary Center" so she could learn to cook the “finest cuisine at sea” and, indeed, the food on the Marina was 5 star in every dining venue. I started each day in the well-equipped gym with a half-hour on the treadmill. I was amused that according to the calorie read out, I burned enough to justify the prior evening's dessert.

We both liked to attend the lectures given by the Oceanographer who was traveling with us, Dr. Stuart Nelson. I've heard him speak before on another Oceania cruise, but as Ann says, he could read the phone book and be interesting.

But mostly during the languid afternoons, I'd find a quiet nook, or sit on the balcony of our room, watching the Ocean gently roll by, reading my books, almost finishing four novels during that period, two of which I brought and other two from the ship's library. So my literary friends for the journey were Canin, Shreve, Walter, and Casey.

The first one I read was America America by Ethan Canin. It was recommended by a good friend whose daughter knows the author, who teaches at Iowa writer's workshop, the same one where Carver, Cheever, and Irving have taught, some of my favorite authors. Canin was a discovery for me, reminding me very much of some of my other favorite writers such as Richard Russo and Russell Banks, with upstate northeast small town and family dynamic themes. It is also a coming of age novel, with shadows of Fitzgerald's Gatsby and its American dream focus (from which the novel derives its bold title) -- glimpses into the upper classes with the reminder that behind every great fortune is a great sin. Shifts in chronology make it interesting reading as well and sometimes I felt I was reading a novel that was indeed designed by a teacher, but a VERY good one, and I look forward to the future work of Ethan Canin.
I discovered Anita Shreve's Rescue in the ship's library and as I like her writing, in particular the Weight of Water, Pilot's Wife, Sea Glass, and Body Surfing, I snapped up the copy while I was finishing America America. Rescue comes uncomfortably close to my personal life, not that I was an EMT, but married early, "rescuing" not only my first wife, but myself. It is about codependency and dysfunctional families and alcoholism, but it too is a coming of age novel, the two main characters becoming what they were meant to be in the end. It is a very sparse novel, written in typical fluid Shreve style, with a sense of immediacy. This is not a novel to be read for the plot. It's all about the characters and the writing.

So, finishing that book I calculated that I'd finish the other novel I had brought (more on that later) so I panicked as the other novels I had seen in the ship's library -- at least those that I might have been interested in reading -- I had already read, but then I came across an unexpected treasure, The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter. I'm wary reading books by the "younger generation" although I have a high regard for Jonathan Franzen's works -- who was born when I was graduating from high school. Jess Walter is even younger than Franzen, a Generation Xer, but I was intrigued by the title and the fact that Richard Russo wrote a brief testimonial which was conspicuous on the jacket. I trust Russo: "When it comes to explaining to me my own too often baffling nation, there's no one writing today whom I trust as completely as Jess Walter. His intelligence and sympathy and great wit inform every page--indeed every sentence--of his terrific new novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets.". That was enough for me to give it a try, and I am glad I did. (As I publisher, I was always dubious about the effectiveness of testimonial blurbs -- but they obviously work!)

This is a very funny but tragic book, a look at the financial debacle of the past few years and its impact on the main character, Matt Prior who had quit his job at the height of the financial boom to start a business web site that was to report news in verse, called He had borrowed to start his business while his wife became a compulsive shopper on EBay trying to resell petty merchandise at a profit ("everyone else is doing it!") and before they knew it their family, consisting of them, their two sons and Matt's increasingly senile father who is now living in their home, become embroiled in a financial nightmare. It is told, though, with the skill of Joseph Heller's Catch 22, updated for the world. Like Rescue, it is about some poor choices, but redemption is found at the end. It is a totally imaginative novel, one that seems so natural even though it is so satiric. In addition to Ethan Canin, I will be watching out for Jess Walter's future works.

Finally, I turned to the other novel I brought with me, John Casey's Spartina. I wanted to read this before Casey's sequel, Compass Rose, and also because it was a National Book Award–winning book. I was immediately drawn in because it is about the sea, and, in particular, an area we had regularly traversed in our own boat -- the waters off of Rhode Island. And it is about a commercial fishermen, one I might have met during my boating life, and the vicissitudes they endure because of their love of the sea (the main one, just trying to make a living). Dick Pierce is not only a fisherman but he is a boat-builder as well and he is building the boat of his dreams, one that is to provide for his family but also one that he views as a work of art. Casey brings his environment to life, whether it is in the cockpit of a fishing boat, heaving off the seas of Block Island, or the back marshes of the New England coast. Casey's writing is achingly heartfelt and even though I am not yet quite finished with the novel (I have a tendency to drag out those novels I am enjoying the most), I know this one will want to bring me to Compass Rose soon after.

The other benefit of a long cruise is meeting other people, and some of the photos I posted show us with other couples, all of whom we enjoyed being with. They were from all walks of life, and I'll mention that among the men were Mike, who happens to live nearby, and who was in the publishing business so we had acquaintances in common, Jim, who was an attaché to Henry Kissinger, John, who owned a food distribution business and retired for many years to a French mill house in Bordeaux, and Aubrey, a riotous Englishman with a droll sense of humor who sold wigs for a living and whose hand shake was like a vice -- I had to actually ice my hand that evening if I ever hoped to play the piano again!

All in all, an interesting, memorable experience, topped off by the traditional water cannon salute that greets a new ship, as we entered the Port of Miami. As a lark, I thought I'd try to capture the moment using my non-video digital camera, the first time I ever used the feature. Had I known it was going to work as well as it would , I would have done a better job with composition and zooming, but, nonetheless, I posted it on YouTube (also my first).