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.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Conroy's Reading Life

Our good friend Edie gave me My Reading Life by Pat Conroy when I recently entered the hospital, which was supposed to be for a more routine visit than it turned out to be. She knows I love good writing, and she thinks of me as a writer as well. It was a very thoughtful gift. Yes, I write, and I enjoy it, but to be a real writer means to forsake just about everything and dedicate yourself to the craft. It also helps to have an abundance of talent, an omniscient eye and an encyclopedic memory.

I cannot think of any great writer who is not obsessive compulsive about writing. In many ways, I wish I could roll back time and make that choice, but it would have been to the detriment of a publishing career I loved and other avocations such as the piano, studying the machinations of economic markets, politics, and a bunch of other things. Although I started Conroy's work in the hospital, I had difficulty concentrating on it or anything else after undergoing such major surgery. My recovery left me unable to do much but change channels watching awful TV which I can only describe as crap, and if that is emblematic of where American "culture" has migrated, there is no hope for our society.

Once I returned home, I picked up the book again. Conroy achingly cries out in poetic terms for an understanding as to why he writes, why he found refuge as a child in literature, first as a means of connecting with his mother (no, worshiping her) and as a means of escaping his father. I have a particular empathy for literature as a means to understand family, as I wrote in an earlier piece: "What draws me to these writers is families, or more specifically, dysfunctional families. Strong mothers or weak fathers or weak mothers and strong fathers with borderline “crazy” behavior, dark humor and the unpredictable maturation of children from those families. Of course if art mirrors life, it may be that “dysfunctional” is merely normalcy in today’s world."

It was heartbreaking, though, to read Conroy's dedication page. My Reading Life begins with: "This book is dedicated to my lost daughter, Susannah Ansley Conroy. Know this: I love you with my heart and always will. Your return to my life would be one of the happiest moments I could imagine."

So, as in my family, succeeding generations are affected by the tribulations fostered by previous generations. I naturally tried to discover more, and found his comments about the dedication page in an NPR review: Apparently he has been estranged from his daughter since divorcing her mother in 1995: "She has a perfect right not to see me. She's 28 now. But I thought this [dedication] was going to be a last cry of the heart. I would at least try to get her attention and see if I could get her to come back. It has been one of the most soul-killing things to ever happen to me." [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

Maybe his daughter will reconnect with her father if she has the opportunity to read this book and understand the undertow of Conroy's maturation as a man and as a writer. He covers a wide range of influences on his writing, first and foremost his mother, who became immersed in Gone With the Wind, continuously reading passages from the novel to her son, beginning when he was five years old. "I owe a personal debt to this novel that I find almost beyond reckoning. I became a novelist because of Gone with the Wind, or more precisely, my mother raised me up to be a "Southern" novelist, with a strong emphasis on the word "Southern," because Gone with the Wind set my mother's imagination ablaze when she was a young girl in Atlanta, and it was the one fire of her bruised, fragmented youth that never went out....It was the first time I knew that literature had the power to change the world."

Then there were the teachers, in particular Gene Norris's English class, and the "anti-teachers" in particular his father, Donald Conroy, the Marine who beat his family. Conroy bore much of this. "From an early age, I knew I didn't want to be anything like the man he was....I was on a lifelong search for the different kind of man. I wanted to attach my own moon of solitude to the strong attraction of a good man's gravitational pull." Gene Norris was that man and he became a lifelong friend and mentor to Conroy and introduced Conroy to a wide range of classic literature.

Then there were people in his life who could have been negative influences, the librarian, Miss Hunter, at Beaufort High School, Cliff Grabart, the proprietor of the Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta, and the cantankerous, but lover of literature, a book representative, Norman Berg, who I met on several occasions at book conventions. Conroy even went out on sales calls with Berg. That was the foundation of the publishing business then.

From each of these people Conroy took away something and bonded with them in his own way. In fact, Conroy was sponge-like in his dealings with people and the literature he read, recording everything, the eyes and ears of a writer on duty at all times. This is what separates mediocre writers from great ones.

He did the ex-pat "thing" in Paris in the late 1970s. "Parisians... relish the xenophobic sport of stereotyping and love to offer an infinite variety of theories on the nature of Americans. To them, we as a people are shallow, criminally naive, reactionary, decadent, over-the-hill, uncultured, uneducable, and friendly to a fault....Whenever Parisians heard my execrable attempts at French, they would cover their ears with their hands and moan over the violation and butchery of their sweet tongue." My own visits to France taught me a similar lesson, my high school French had to be left behind and I sometimes pretended to be Canadian. But maybe the French are on to something, given my captivity by the mindless TV programming during my hospital stay.

Conroy was finishing The Lords of Discipline in Paris, staying at a hotel where he encountered a wide range of travelers, including other artists. As my son is an inveterate traveler, I was fascinated by Conroy's exquisite explanation as to what it is to be an ex-pat, meeting other people on similar journeys: "Because we were strangers who would know one another on this planet for a very short time, we could trade those essential secrets of our lives that defined us in absolute terms. Voyagers can remove the masks and those sinuous, intricate disguises we wear at home in the dangerous equilibrium of our common lives. The men and women I met at the Grand Hotel des Balcons traveled to change themselves, to trust their bright impulse with the hope they would receive the gift of the sublime, life-changing encounter somewhere on the road. There is no voyage without a spiritual, even religious impulse. Each of us had met by accident, our lives touched briefly, fragilely -- then we continued on our own private journeys, and those intense encounters left a fragrant pollen on the sills and eaves of memory."

But to this point, My Reading Life is merely a warm up for what is the main event and influence on Conroy's writing and he appropriately entitles the chapter "A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe."
It was Gene Norris who gave him Wolfe's classic Look Homeward, Angel in 1961 as a Christmas present. "The book's impact on me was visceral that I mark the reading of Look Homeward, Angel as one of the pivotal events of my life....The beauty of the language, shaped in sentences as pretty as blue herons, brought me to my knees with pleasure....I was under the illusion that Thomas Wolfe had written his book solely because he knew that I would one day read it, that a boy in South Carolina would enter his house of art with his arms wide open, ready and waiting for everything that Thomas Wolfe could throw at him."

I felt the same awe when I read the novel in college, probably at about the same time as Conroy. Never before had I felt that way when reading fiction. The only way to describe his writing is as being concurrently prodigious and poetic, an uncommon combination. And the novel was even larger before publication and luckily for Wolfe his editor was none other than the legendary Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's who also was Ernest Hemingway's and F. Scott Fitzgerald's. Wolfe was in good company.

The publication of Look Homeward, Angel, had, at its heart, detailed autobiographical elements, the same sort of autobiographical elements in which Conroy's own The Great Santini is grounded. Wolfe's work caused an uproar in his hometown, beautiful Asheville, North Carolina. For a while he was banished from the town, but he did return later to write You Can't Go Home Again.

Conroy has made the pilgrimage to Asheville, first with his teacher, Gene Morris, to visit Wolfe's "Old Kentucky Home," the boarding house maintained by Wolfe's mother. Conroy rocked on the chairs where the boarders gathered on the porch. He toured the home which has been so lovingly restored. I wonder whether Conroy has seen the wonderful play about Wolfe's return to Asheville, Return of an Angel which we were lucky enough to experience during one of our visits to Asheville. It brought Wolfe's return to Asheville alive.

We have been to the Wolfe home in Asheville twice and came away with the same feeling of time having been stopped during those years, before Wolfe's untimely death at the age of only 37. Imagine the great works he would have written if he had lived. As Conroy says, "I think the novels of his fifties and sixties would have been masterpieces. Time itself is a shaping, transfiguring force in any writer's life. Wolfe's best novels sleep in secret on a hillside in Asheville -- beside him forever, or at least, this is what I believe." I agree, Pat, and thank you for reminding me of Wolfe's passion, an invitation to reread his work.

Conroy's concluding chapter, "Why I Write" is probably one of the best I've ever read on the subject, setting the serious writer apart from the potboilers that weigh down today's best seller lists. "Stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself...Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear."

Also in that chapter, he returns to the overarching theme of literature and family, the role of literature explaining who we are and where we came from: "I've always wanted to write a letter to the boy I once was, lost and dismayed in the plainsong of a childhood he found all but unbearable. but I soon discovered that I've been writing voluptuous hymns to that boy my whole life, because somewhere along the line -- in the midst of breakdowns, disorder, and a malignant attraction to mayhem that's a home place for the beaten child -- I fell in love with that kid." And I too fell in love, as much with Conroy's nonfiction as his novels, particularly with My Reading Life, as well as My Losing Season. Such truthfulness and beautiful writing. One can only hope his honesty will lead to a reconciliation with his daughter. It would be just.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Natty Bumppo Economics

The recently completed $38 billion battle of brinksmanship over next year's federal budget is going to look like child's play in comparison to the upcoming showdown over the need to increase the debt ceiling. So, so much more is at stake, including the dollar's status as a reserve currency. And yet, our congressional "leaders" have declared a recess until sometime in early May, only a couple of weeks before the Treasury hits the debt ceiling. No doubt the recent move in gold and dollar weakness reflect an increasing anxiety that the United States Government could actually default. S&P has put the US on credit watch. Without Congressional action we will simply greatly increase the cost of inevitably having to borrow anyhow when Armageddon comes knocking at our fiscal door, and who will want to lend to a deadbeat government? Why would our politicians even play such a game? Is it a form of political conspiracy to bring the government to its knees?

Agreed, carrying unsustainable debt is a sure death knell as well. But debt on the balance sheet comes not only from making poor judgments and being profligate, it also comes from failing to raise revenue. Both sides of the income statement --- expenses AND revenue ---need to be examined by our absentee representatives.

It is wishful thinking, particularly as the economy has been on life support through the Federal Reserve since the 2008 financial crisis, that we can grow enough to offset the tax cuts that have been implemented since the Clinton years. US taxpayers with the highest adjusted gross income have watched their federal tax rates fall from about 30 percent in 1995 to 17 percent by 2007. No argument that we need to simplify the tax code, but tax revenues need to be higher, simple as that. We need to revisit those Clinton rates again, a graduated tax rate without the loopholes. Close as many doors as possible to the underground economy. Eviscerate tax avoidance strategies.

We also need to shore up Social Security by increasing the wage limits for SS taxes -- or how about a similar "donut hole" we give to seniors for their drug needs, taxing wages for social security to a certain limit, then no tax until another higher limit is reached, and then resume taxing for social security revenue. On the expense side of the income statement, means testing will have to be instituted and the retirement age slowly moved back.

The ideas put forth for privatizing Medicare will slowly kill the program, so desperately needed by the middle class. Cost containment measures have to take first priority. A voucher program is smoke and mirrors. Can you imagine the average senior having to make such decisions with insurance companies pulling the strings?

And Medicare being entirely turned over to the States, many of which can hardly make their own budgets balance? Disaster for the poor.

These are huge issues and I don't mean to simplify any of them, but defaulting on our debt is NOT the first step in resolving any of these problems. It will be our last.

The amazing thing about this "movement"-- if it is fair to call it that -- is some of the people who would be hurt the most just say "bring it on, let the government fail." Perhaps this notion harkens back to the idealized Natty Bumppo from James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. But this is not a mythical tale of American rugged individualism and "one shot, one kill." It is about cooperation and compromise. We need our representatives to do the hard, serious work they were hired to do without all the political posturing and partisanship, and without the brinksmanship of the twelfth hour.