Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

“Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.” -- John Adams

That is how I concluded an entry I wrote three years ago on Memorial Day.

I still think about the profound significance of the day and of my Dad who served in WW II as a Signal Corps photographer. He was not the type of man who talked about his experiences in the war much, particularly the day he was one of the first army photographers who entered the Buchenwald concentration camp. He had horrific photos in his private collection which I discovered as a kid. Also I remember today was known as Decoration Day, but the intended meaning of honoring our veterans has not changed. Thanks to them all we live in a country which in spite of its problems is always striving to "form a more perfect union."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Special Day, A Special Woman

Ann, my wife and best friend, is turning 70. Incredible. When we met in our late 20's, I remember listening to the words of the Paul Simon song of our youth, Old Friends, "Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly? / How terribly strange to be 70." Indeed, how terribly strange it seemed to us then, really unthinkable, but that is the curse of youth, a presumed eternity of life.

We were both working then for the same publishing company in New York City, but at the end of the 1960's I accepted a career opportunity in Westport, CT, and worked at that same job until retirement. Meanwhile, we raised a family: our son, and my son from a prior marriage.

Before taking on the responsibility of child-rearing, Ann continued to work in NYC even after we relocated to Westport, my dropping her off at the Westport train station early in the morning on my way to the office and picking her up on the way home. When Ann was pregnant she stopped working and we did what countless couples did, worked on the house, moved to a larger house, raised our family, worked and played hard (particularly on our boat) and, suddenly, the kids were gone and my working days were concluding. The 70's, 80's 90's, and, now, the first decade of 21st century flew by almost stealthily, but with gathering speed.

How does a marriage survive such a long period of time? By being best friends I think. Simply put, we're simpatico. I've watched the birthday milestones, now, of most of Ann's life and in fact had large surprise parties for her 40th and 50th.
The 50th was particularly special as I wrote a speech which, I thought, really explains her character, and giving a sense of how special she is, and it can be read at the concluding part of this link.

So, another twenty years has gone by and she is now 70 (and I am approaching the same, health willing). Why does it feel like (to us both) we are still kids? Of course our bodies deny that fact as does the mirror, but the mind seems to rule. I still think of her as that youthful, beautiful woman I married, someone who was so very different than I on the one hand, but seemed to share many of my interests.

I've told a lot about those interests since writing this blog, so no need to detail them in this entry. But, over the years, I've scanned many of our photos, and in celebration of Ann's birthday, and her life, I include some here. Happy 70th, Annie!

Might as well start near the beginning, actually the earliest picture I have of her at about one year old. That impish glint is already in her eye

We progress to about 1948. Ann loves dancing and in fact studied Flamenco in her early 20s with one of her employees who later relocated to Spain and became (and still is) a renowned expert on the topic, Estela Zatania. Here Ann is being escorted by her friend, Teddy, at her first Georgia Military Academy Ball. There are a number of photos of Ann as a teenager at various military bases in 1958 and 1959 . She helped organize those dances for servicemen during their basic training out of college.

Ann at fourteen, more recognizable as the women she became.

At her "Sweet Sixteen Birthday Party" which she co-hosted with her best friend Judy, and all their friends. Ann's mother, Rose, is sitting behind her alongside Aunt Emma in the white hat.

Finally, 1959, graduation from Henry Grady High School. Ann's friends got married or went off to college to get married. Ann packed her bags and moved to NYC within months and never looked back.

What does one do in NYC other than work during the day and go to school at nights? Naturally, Ann gravitated towards the performing arts, did one off-off Broadway production, Ann taking a bow as the leading lady in "The Moon is Blue," and she played a mean pair of maracas.

And, if one is going to do theatre, why not mix in a little modeling on the side? Here is a real ham at work.

She also hammed it up on a boat somewhere in New England, little knowing that boating was going to figure prominently in her life.

Finally, the big time. Meeting me and getting married! In my speech at her 50th birthday, linked above, I adlibbed that she had "married well" which brought everyone to uproarious laughter as we all know she could have done a lot better.

One of the responsibilities Ann took on was to become a step-mother to Chris. I am proud that they have a great relationship to this day and consider themselves spiritual mother and son.

And, then there is our son, Jonathan, who inherited his wanderlust from his mother. Here we are at the Montauk Inlet, probably around 1984, on our way to Block Island.

For several years I had a non-commercial lobster license and we would tend to several lobster pots off of the Norwalk Islands. Ann was a good sport about this and would often remark to people," look at these hands and manicured nails -- they've been in lobster pots!"

As I said earlier, I was able to pull off big surprise birthday parties for Ann, for her 40th and her 50th, those ten years between being some of the best of our lives. Friends and relatives from far joined in these celebrations.

We've done a lot of travel while married, mine mostly for business, Ann sometimes accompanying me and trying to squeeze in some personal time. Now that I am retired, it is all for pleasure, mostly hers. She is an inveterate traveler, always ready to pack her bag to visit her best friend, Maria, in Sicily or other parts of the world, too numerous to list here.

Finally, the most recent picture of us together, on our little boat in Lake Worth at sunset.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Peacocks Preening

The bird moved forward a little. Then it turned its head to the side and braced itself. It kept its bright, wild eye right on us. Its tail was raised, and it was like a big fan folding in and out. There was every color in the rainbow shining from that tail....The bird made this strange wailing sound once more. 'May-awe, may-awe!' it went. If it'd been something I was hearing late at night and for the first time, I'd have thought it was somebody dying, or else something wild and dangerous. --- Raymond Carver, Feathers

It has been that kind of "wild and dangerous" week in Washington, the showing of the feathers -- May-awe, may-awe! -- the Democrats crucifying the oil industry in Congressional Hearings, with the irony of Jay Rockefeller, a great-grandson of Standard Oil Company's John D. Rockefeller, grilling oil executives over tax breaks, even though the "mere" few billion yearly in such breaks wouldn't even move the needle on the national debt. And, of the $4 dollars being paid at the pump, those tax breaks are negligible. Not that I understand their need for those tax breaks: let the politicians battle that one out. But what I do understand is grandstanding when I see it. May-awe, may-awe!

What our Congressional leaders should be addressing is the need for a national energy policy, but we've been talking, talking, about that ever since the gas lines of the early 1970's. We have the technology but not the will to do what is necessary and every administration has kicked that can down the road.

It shows the dysfunctional nature of our government and we are paying for it, literally, in our national debt, at the pump, and at the supermarket, etc. Senator Rockefeller, when you made your political accusation to the oil executives, " I think you're out of touch, deeply profoundly out of touch," you should have been addressing Congress instead.

Speaking about being out of touch, we also had the preening of the Republicans, best represented by House Speaker John Boehner's remarks at the New York Economic club: "It's true that allowing America to default would be irresponsible...but it would be more irresponsible to raise the debt ceiling without simultaneously taking dramatic steps to reduce spending and reform the budget process." May-awe, may-awe! As Congress would like to raise the debt limit by $2 trillion, that means $2 trillion in cuts which sounds idyllic, just like ending oil tax incentives. But we are supposed to hit the debt ceiling within days or weeks. Can one imagine Congress being capable of engineering $2 trillion in cuts in such a short time? Impossible. So there it is, an implied ultimatum to the President: no tax increases and show me the $2 trillion or we don't care whether there is a default by the US on its debt. Catastrophic for our country, but that's the Rambo image our "leaders" like to project, no matter what the consequences to our economy and jobs. May-awe, may-awe!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Dramaworks

The small town in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland, called Leenane, is not a place where people really live. They merely exist, watching their lives dissipate. Nothing happens there, except boredom and waiting for the evening news on the telly. The "beauty queen" of the town is the angry, delusional spinster daughter, Maureen, of a savagely controlling mother, Mag, who are locked together in battle throughout the play. It is an interesting choice of properties by Dramaworks not only to conclude its most successful season ever (every play five stars by this "reviewer"), it also marks the end of its presence at the diminutive theatre on Banyan Blvd. Its next season begins on 11.11.11 at the newly renovated theatre on Clematis Street, with a larger stage, more seating, and new challenges.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh works best in the intimate setting of its present location, where the audience is closely caught up in the grimy, gritty substance of the play. Poor Maureen has been abandoned by her two sisters who long ago fled the town, escaping by marriage, leaving their younger sister, now 40, with caretaking responsibility for their 70- year old cantankerous, hypochondriac mother. The play opens ominously, a thunderstorm underway, Mag's face illuminated by the lightening, foreshadowing events to come. Mother and daughter confront each other, Mag with her complaints about the complan (meal supplement) and her porridge, Maureen angry that her mother continues to pour her urine from the bed pan down the kitchen sink. The "u-reyene" infection issue is brought up like a leitmotif throughout, part of the dark humor that shrouds the entire play. Maureen admits her fantasy of inviting an imaginary beau to their home, only if he likes to murder old women. Maureen's frustration and fury throughout is for the most part kept tightly under control but omnipresent.

Into every stalemated symbiotic relationship must come a game changer, and it is Pato Dooley, who had fled his hometown for London, but while visiting Leenane invites Maureen to a party where an unexpected flame is ignited between them. It is he who gives Maureen the ironic crowning of "the beauty queen of Leenane." When Maureen feels there is a chance to escape the prison of her surroundings and most particularly, her mother, the tension grows in the play as Mag stands in the way of her daughter's last chance at happiness.

Pato's brother Ray plays a go-between the two would be lovers, but he too is a victim of the town, a bored, restless young man, who can see his own bleak future there, and he impatiently fails to deliver the letter to Maureen that would have changed her life. As it is, that failure leads to other bleak consequences. The letter itself is delivered to the audience as an unforgettable monologue by Pato in the opening scene of Act II. As we have front row seats, Pato was looking in our eyes and I felt every word in my gut.

Appropriately, this last play of Dramaworks before the 11.11.11. opening of its new theatre was directed by Bill Hayes, the theater's cofounder. The play flows, never a dull moment, but always unsettling. It starts darkly and moves inexorably into tragedy. One is hardly aware of the skilled direction needed to bring this off, and hold the audience mesmerized in spite of the raw elements being presented.

Dramaworks also knows how to pick the most talented actors for its productions. Barbara Bradshaw who I thought was brilliant in Dramaworks' production of The Chairs is the perfect Mag Folan. I watched her eyes as Maureen spoke at times, Mag following every hurtful word, but at the same time, using those words as fodder to feed her own controlling revengefulness.

How Kati Brazda, who plays Maureen, could hold onto that anger in such a controlled way for two hours, but with flashes of brief happiness in the presence of Pato, is remarkable. I've known people like her in my own life, damaged people, trying to survive with their anger, but poorly. She was so real and utterly believable.

I already remarked that Pato's monologue letter to Maureen is one of the high points of the production, so impassionedly delivered by Blake DeLong who almost succeeded in rescuing poor Maureen. His sometimes bumbling, but always frustrated brother, Ray, is competently played by Kevin Kelly who articulates the simple but profound: "This bastard town will kill you."

My wife saw the original play on Broadway and her only complaint was the difficulty in understanding the thick Irish accents. Every word in this play must be heard and understood to make it successful theatre. To the credit of Dramaworks, they enlisted Lisa Morgan as a dialect and vocal coach for the play, the perfect Irish accent but with a clarity understandable to an American audience. Ann consequently thought it was a more enjoyable production than even the Broadway version.

Original music was written for the brief interludes in this production, Irish music of course, which just added to the enjoyment.

This is not a play for everyone, but it seems to be so fitting for Dramaworks' last at its present intimate location -- an exclamation point added to their artistic mission of "theatre to think about."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Credit Where Credit is Due

The killing of Osama bin Laden brings back the memories of that terrible day of 9/11 and a feeling of closure and admiration for the persistence of our intelligence community and brave men and women in the military. Ironically at the White House Correspondents' Dinner traditional "roasting" over the weekend, President Obama was joking about Trump's decision to fire a "celebrity apprentice" as the kind of thing that would keep him up at night, while this operation was being planned. It was a daring one, and not involving Pakistan was a calculated risk. Can one imagine if it had failed, as Carter's rescue of the Iranian hostages did, and the ensuing invectives that would have been launched at Obama? President Obama inherited a decade of overspending, tax cuts, wars on multiple fronts, an elusive bin Laden, and continuing unrest in the Middle East. What a lousy hand he was dealt, but, as that Correspondents' Dinner showed, he has managed to retain a sense of humor while his intelligence never fails to shine through.

It remains to be seen whether bin Laden's death will have an effect on future Al-Qaeda efforts or, more importantly, the unrest sweeping the Middle East where Al-Qaeda is conspicuous by its absence. If anything, there are signs that self government, even along democratic lines, is being valued more than Muslim extremism. It's almost as if our electing our first biracial President, one who lived in a Muslim country briefly as a child, was a symbolic call to the world of "tear down these walls" -- no less potent than President Reagan's challenge to Gorbachev at the Brandenburg Gate.