Thursday, November 14, 2019

Quincy

Quincy was my best friend Alex's cousin.  She came, with her Greek boyfriend, Christo, to stay with us in Paris when we lived there in 1972.  They also brought their black lab, Orion.
                                                            
You can see her here, in the murky photo--God, I wish we'd taken better pictures--in a white sweater, her right hand resting on Orion's side.  We're sitting at our table at 43 bis villa d'Alesia in Paris.  That's me, on the right, long hair and all.

Quincy was a bright-spirited, highly-energetic woman who loved to walk around Paris.  She was relentlessly cheerful and all but unstoppable.  I would walk with her from time to time.  She had a quirk of rubbing her thumb and forefinger together as she walked, the rubbing faster as the pace became more brisk.  And it always did.  She was slim, with long, fine brown hair and a ready smile.  She had a sly sense of humor, and she was kind.

A few years after all of this, I was living in Cambridge, MA.  Quincy came for a conference and visited me.  It was so good to see her.  We walked together around a lake, and I had a hard time keeping up with her.  "What's the matter, Rich--have you let yourself go?  Come on! Let's go!"

A few years after that, I got a call from Alex.  Quincy had been in an automobile accident.  Her spine had been severed.  She was paralyzed from the waist down.

The great walker would walk no more.

Nothing makes any sense sometimes. 

But in my mind's eye, I still see the Quincy from Paris and Cambridge.  This is who will always be Quincy for me.  The relentless walker, moving swiftly on the balls of her feet, on and on and on, urging me to keep up with her, and I can't.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Changing

A strange thing has happened to me.

Not bad, just strange.

I remember when I was a kid, small kid, I read about a guy named Albert Schweitzer.  I know who he is now, but back then, he was this white guy who went to Africa to help people.  I don't think I even really knew where Africa was.

This was all in Life Magazine.  Too bad for you who never got to experience that publication.  It was a sprawling, lap-sized magazine that, really, told the story of America.  Or part of it.

Schweitzer.  A Life reporter asked him about his reverence for life, his belief of not killing any creature.  He said something to the effect, "And that would include even a flea."  I thought he was crazy.

Now, at 74, I'm finding that I find it hard to kill anything--yes, even a fly.  If it's a moth or a spider or a wasp, I'll do my damndest to capture it with a paper towel and release it outside. Didn't do that before.

Perhaps getting older makes one sharper and clearer about life, being alive, what it is that makes someone or something alive.  It is the great mystery.  Holy, if anything.
                                                                   
Albert Schweitzer

Friday, October 25, 2019

James Beard


I'm writing about James Beard, because he was a wonderful writer who deserves to be known by all who love good food and good writing.  

I'm worried that too few people know who he was, except as the name affixed to a coveted award.  He was a giant, figuratively and literally. He was born in 1903 and died in 1985. 

He wrote over thirty cookbooks, and I have had a few through the years, but the one I've had for forty years and always return to with delight is James Beard's American Cookery.  Some of it is datedhe has over thirty entries for "Candy," for example.  But most of it isn't, and, more important, none of the writing is.  I have yet to find a writer who knows more about American food and its history than James Beard.  Each recipe is preceded by intriguing, highly informative prose about the dish and its background, often with a personal note.  Beard draws on an enormous store of cookbooks and writers, many I'd never heard of.  He seems sometimes to have one footmaybe twoplanted firmly in the early twentieth centurysay, 1918.  I feel, sometimes, as if I'm sitting around a boarding house table with him, the table groaning with fresh stews, vegetables, breads, puddings and pies.  That would make perfect sense.  His mother ran a boarding house in Portland, Oregon.  

He didn't have to learn about farm-to-table, because that's where he came from.  He only ate the freshest ingredients when he was a boy growing up in Oregon, and that's what he espoused from experience and taste.  His family took summer trips to the Oregon coast, and that's where he learned about seafood.  All of it fresh, of course.

I saw him once.  In Greenwich Village, where he lived.  He lived on West 12th Street, and so did I.  I'm surprised I didn't see him more often, but one day, I did.  It was in a little Italian Restaurant on Hudson Street, near Abingdon Square.


I must have been engrossed in my mealit was a great little place, cheap with delicious foodbecause I didn't notice him when I walked in.  At one point, I looked up and I saw him from behind, that enormous bald head and equally large frame.  You know how you can identify certain people from behind?  I knew it was James Beard.  Of course, I also knew he lived in the neighborhood, so it made sense.  This would have been about 1980, so he would have been in his early eighties.  I was so pleased with myself for having seen him, as if I'd planned it.  I only remember hearing one thing he said, in a soft voice,

"Everyone knows I'm a pussycat."

Lion, I'd say.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Truth of Fashion

Two years ago, Azzedine Alaïa died.

I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't know who he was.  Unless you are familiar with the world of fashion, there's no reason you should know his name.  He was a designer of women's clothes in the tradition of Dior, Yves St. Laurent, Givenchy, Armani.

He made dresses. Spectacular dresses.  But dresses nonetheless.

Great designers, those who work in Paris or Milan, will have two distinct lines of clothing.  They make one-of-a-kind dresses that cost extraordinary sums of money.  And they make a line of clothing that is ready-to-wear.  In French, it sounds classier,  prêt-à-porter.  Means the same thing.

In ready-to-wear, you do not get a dress that's unique, but the clothing can still be very expensive.  A typical price for a ready-to-wear dress by Azzedine Alaïa is around $3000. The one below, a lot more.

  Azzedine Alaïa and model

It's very easy to dismiss the world of fashion, especially when it reaches upper heights of richdom.  Especially at $3000 a pop.  Cue the yearly income of a farmer in Bolivia, which is perhaps half that, probably far less.

But I've always loved fashion, especially high fashion.  I've loved looking at the work of Christian Dior, for example.  I'm transfixed by his designs.  And, more recently, by the work of Emanuel Ungaro.  

How can I justify paying more than 20 seconds attention to a business that caters to the rich and the vain?  I dress in LL Bean and J. Crew on sale, quite happily.  It seems so frivolous.

I justify it because of beauty.  No, not the beauty of the women who wear the dresses.  The beauty of the dresses themselves.  The intricacy of the work, the immaculate detail of it, the creative use of fabric and hue. Dior was a superb craftsman, designer, artist.

Christian Dior, left, and right, with model

There is probably something in your life that you lust for that is very expensive.  Lust for--maybe admire, even worship in a way.  Is it a Lamborghini?  Is it a room at the Ritz in Paris?  Is it Beluga Caviar?  You'll never purchases these things, but you would if you could.  Wouldn't you?

If I'm being honest, the few women I've met who can afford these dresses haven't been very interesting.  I generally have found most very wealthy people to be boring.  (Expect blowback, but who cares?)

I separate the garment and the craftsmanship, the artistry, from the people who wear it.  All you need to do is thumb through the pages of any good book on Dior designs, and if you like beauty, you'll like at least some of his dresses very much. And, yes, I'm with Keats.  Beauty is truth.  Lies are ugly.  And beauty never lies.

It's no coincidence that one of the top ten most-visited exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was the 2011 exhibition of the work of the British designer, Alexander McQueen.  I was in Denver over Christmas, and the exhibit, Dior: From Paris to the World, was a smash at the Denver Museum.

So, RIP, Azzedine Alaïa and fellow creators of beauty.  We can never have enough of that, in whatever form.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

French Quarter, Je t'aime

I published a love letter to the French Quarter of New Orleans recently in the splendid French Quarter Journal. This is how it begins:

            In 2011, I came to New Orleans from New York City to take a teaching job at the University of New Orleans.

            I’d never been to New Orleans.  I didn’t know the city at all.  Where to live?  A friend, who had once lived in New Orleans, advised me:

            “Don’t live in the French Quarter.” 

            “Why not?” I asked.  After all, Tennessee Williams had lived there, and he hadn’t done too badly, had he?  

            Because, he said, it’s too expensive.  And you’ll never find a place to park. 



            I didn’t heed that advice.  I reasoned since I didn’t know a soul in New Orleans, at least I’d be living in a neighborhood where there was always something going on.  I wouldn’t be lonely.  As for the parking, well, I’d lived in New York for thirty years.  Parking, in the French Quarter, compared to the ferocious, gladiator-like struggle in New York City to find a space for your car, couldn’t be nearly as daunting. 

            When I came to New Orleans to search for an apartment, I enlisted the services of a real estate broker who specialized in the French Quarter.  He lived in the Quarter, and his family had been selling and renting houses there for years.

            “What do you do?”  he asked me.

            “Well, I’m a writer.  I’ve come to New Orleans to take a job teaching.”

            “A writer?  Oh, well, you must live in the Quarter.”

(You can read the rest of the piece here.)

Friday, August 23, 2019

Rick Stolorow's Guide to What Is Jewish

Richard Norman Stolorow.

Fellow prep school student.  Roommate at the University of Michigan, freshman and senior year. 1964 and 1967. Yes, many moons ago.

Taught me so many things.  We were a team.  The two ridiculous brothers.  Going to parties at U of M.  Smoking dope.  Inhale.  Cough.  Pass that joint.  Whew.

Competitive.  Both won awards at U of M for writing.  We would be writers.  Maybe.  We both had domineering fathers. 

Jewishness.  Learned most everything from Rick. Went to his house one weekend when I was a teenager at prep school.  His family, very Jewish, culturally.  At dinner. Talk:

“Let’s do the ‘What’s Jewish’ thing,” Rick said.  “I’m in control.”  He knitted his fingers together and spread them out. “So,” Rick said, picking up a salt shaker, “what about salt?”
            “Salt is Jewish,” Mr. Stolorow, his father, said.  He wore huge glasses that went far beyond his eyes.
            “Pepper?”
            “Pepper is Christian.”
            “Ok, what about water?” Rick asked.
            “Water is Christian,” Mr. Stolorow decreed. “Ice is Jewish.”  He came up with answers immediately, as if they were obvious. He was the Supreme Court of what was Jewish.  
I blinked in wonder.  Growing up Christian in a small Virginia town, I knew nothing of this.
“Potatoes?” Rick asked.
            “Mashed potatoes...” Mr. Stolorow paused and reflected, “can be either Jewish or Christian.  Baked potatoes are Christian.”
            “What about boats?” Rick asked.
            “Sailboats are Christian,” Mr. Stolorow said.  “Powerboats are Jewish.  Everyone knows that.”
            “Chicken?”
            “Boiled chicken is Jewish.  Fried chicken is Christian.  But chicken in general is Jewish.”
            “Milk?”
            Mr. Stolorow looked at Rick as if a three-star chef had just been asked to flip a burger.
            “Christian.”
            “What about card games?  Poker?”
            “Poker is definitely Christian.  Gin rummy is Jewish.”
            I listened, slowly ate my food in amazement.
            “Speaking of gin,” Rick said, “what about—gin?”
            “Gin is Jewish.," Mr. Stolorow said. "Scotch is Christian.  Though that may be changing.”
            “Rum?”
            “Christian.  Catholic, even.”
            “Beer?”
            “Budweiser is Christian.  Stroh’s is…” he named the local beer, “both Jewish and Christian.  But,” he raised a finger in refinement, “Jews are not great beer lovers.”
            “Mailboxes?”
            “Mailboxes are Christian.  Mail slots are Jewish.”
            I wanted to contribute. 
            “What about dogs?” I asked abruptly.
            Everyone turned and looked at me.  For a split second I wasn’t sure if I’d committed a grave mistake.  I’d entered a world uninvited.
            Mr. Stolorow eyed me.  Was I making fun of him?  He paused.  I held my breath.  Then he spoke.
            “Poodles are Christian," he said.  Then he looked down at their own dog and his drooling, gummy maw.  "Boxers," he decreed, "are Jewish."

Rick Stolorow, top row, second from left. Only photo I can find.


Monday, August 19, 2019

Darkness Invisible


When someone says they're "depressed," they can be referring to a one-day dispiritedness.  Or even something lighter:  "I'm depressed the Giants lost."  Or: "It's so depressing it's raining."

Or, more seriously: "He's depressed his wife left him."

But at its worst, at its most profound, depression is crushing.  A weight that can only barely be borne. I think "depression" should have one meaning, and one meaning only, like death. There is no "death lite."  "Depression" should be reserved for that one black night that never turns into day. I think it's because of the enormous range of meaning for the word that some non-sufferers don't see chronic depression as that dire. (You're depressed? You'll get over it.")  It is dire. This dismissiveness is what often makes depressed people ashamed to speak of it.  Once again, that great, oily manipulatorshame.

People have tried through the years to describe what it's like to be profoundly depressed.  Most famously, William Styron in Darkness Visible.  It's a small book full of despair, and he writes truthfully when he says, "the pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne." Styron also writes about the word "depression" being unsatisfactory for what the malady brings to the soul.

But as with all fine writing, there is a kind of paradox to it. Styron's writing is so fluid, so able, so lucid that, somewhere, I'm thinking: this is too beautiful, too lyrical, to represent that utter bleakness.

I think if I were to try to capture what it's like to be profoundly depressedand I declare that I cannotI might write about it monosyllabically, or as close to that as I could get.

Weight.  Dark.  Hopeless.  Tears.  Gone.

I was profoundly depressed in my forties.  My willpower vanished.  All sense of routine was gone.  Responsibility meant nothing.  Everything in myself I relied on deserted me.  Nothing could penetrate this darkness.  It was an emotional black hole where all light was sucked into itself.  Movement was impossible.  Suicide seemed reasonable.  Even desirable.

You have to think: for someone who loves life so much, what could turn them so against it?

Something you don't stand a chance against.

Use the word judiciously.  But if you are depressed, profoundly depressed, speak it.  Let yourself be heard.  And if someone tells you they're deeply depressed, listen to them.  For me, at least, it was only through the help of others, and of one woman in particular I confided in, that I emerged, finally, into daylight.  

But, like the ocean, I respect depression's might and ability to drown.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

My Road Trip with Michelle Obama



Michelle Obama and I took a 1700-mile road trip together recently. I don’t know about her, but I enjoyed every minute of it. She did most of the talking during the trip. All of it, actually. The conversation, if you can call it that, stretched over 15 states, from Louisiana to Maine, and took a total of 26 hours. All of it took place in my small car, a 2010 Ford Focus. You might think that in that tight space, over vast stretches on the Interstate, I might get tired of listening to Michelle Obama talk. But, no, I didn’t. She’s really a good companion. I didn’t know much about her before our road trip together. Other than, you know, what we all know about her. But on this trip, she really let her hair down. The stories she told! Who knew? I mean, when she gets started…! I said very little the entire trip. Once in a while, I’d laugh or smile or nod my head. Basically, it was all her.

I’m talking, of course, about listening to the audio version of Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming.

I could’ve chosen something “deeper” — say, The Brothers Karamazov — which I also have on audio but haven’t yet listened to. Or something that made me laugh out loud, like a David Sedaris book. I’ve listened to his audio books many times while on the road, and, I can tell you, they make the miles fly by. But I chose Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Why? Well, the reviews were excellent — “refined and forthright, gracefully written,” The New York Times declared in what is indisputably a rave. Not to mention the sales. Over 10,000,000, and counting. Recently, Timothy Egan added his praise in the Times, calling Michelle Obama “a luminous, observant, self-aware writer.”

But this was only partially why I chose Becoming to listen to for nearly the entire 26-hour car trip. I was curious. I wanted to know more about the person who had been First Lady for eight years — our first, and only, black First Lady, whose presence became so familiar to so many of us on an almost daily basis. Who is she, really? What did she really think about those unprecedented eight years and about being married to Barack Obama? Now that she’s not under the constant, all-seeing eye of the press, what would she say when given the chance? A lot, I was hoping.

Michelle Obama reads the entire book herself. I haven’t actually read the book, but I can’t think of a better way of experiencing Becoming than through Michelle Obama’s voice. There is something uniquely intimate and child-like about listening to an audio book on a long drive. It’s not radio, so the voice isn’t aggressive, pushy, loud. It’s someone telling you a story. It harkens back to sitting in a parent’s lap and being read to. Or, as an adult, to reading to your own child. Is there a simpler, lovelier connection? Is there a more wonderous way to pass the time than being told a story? And, yes, I believe that fact that Michelle Obama is a mother, makes that harkening back even more powerful. There was a certain sense of feeling protected, even loved, listening to her tell me her story.

When I started the audio book, the first thing I noticed, of course, was that voice. How integral it had been to our lives! Not as much as her husband’s — but close. And what a pleasing voice it is. It’s nearly impossible to describe a voice, and it may be not be necessary here, since we know Michelle Obama’s voice so well. But I can tell you it’s a voice that stands up well to listening to for vast stretches of time. Listening, I was reminded how important a voice is. I don’t mean the words. I mean the voice itself. A voice is as distinct as a fingerprint, and much more accessible and influential. It conveys much about the person. In many ways, it is the person.

So there we were, the two of us. I had Michelle Obama’s confident, vulnerable voice floating around me, for miles and miles, as exit signs and then state lines flowed by. She was there, keeping me company, as I drove from New Orleans where I live, through Mississippi and Alabama and into Georgia. She made me smile and shake my head as I drove through South Carolina, to Charleston, to spend a few days at a friend’s house. Her energy and earnestness kept me alert and content as I drove north through North Carolina, Virginia and, eventually to New York City, where I paused a few days to see my daughter. And she joined me, refreshed and lively, even as I was not, for the final leg through Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and into my destination, Maine. Unlike me, she never got tired.

You know the voice. It’s been supplanted in our consciousness by another voice — not by the President’s wife’s voice, because we never hear that voice — but by the President’s bullying voice, which is like a breached dam, drowning everything. And, of course, Michelle Obama no longer has the wide-ranging forum she once had, so we don’t hear it that often anymore. It was good to have it back in my ear and head.

I had first impressions, of course. I liked the unadorned, practical, straightforward timbre in Michelle Obama’s voice. But what struck me after those hundred pages, and what continued to strike me, was the ordinariness of her story — until, of course, it wasn’t. There is nothing extraordinary about what she wanted from life and what her parents wanted for her and for her brother. Her parents worked hard to provide for their children so they could be raised without want and get a decent education. There is nothing especially extraordinary in her background. It’s easy to put yourself in lock-step beside Michelle Obama as she walks you through her life. Well, until her husband’s career explodes.

I don’t know what Michelle Obama feels is her biggest accomplishment, or what she is most proud of, but if the intensity of feeling that comes through in her voice is any measure, I would say it’s being a mother. The pure fullness of emotion that you hear in her voice is strongest and deepest, to my mind, when she speaks about giving birth, especially to her first daughter, Malia, and the love and responsibility she felt, and I’m sure feels, as the mother of her girls. This is something you can’t fully understand through one-dimensional words on the page, no matter how well-written they are. Intonation, inflection, nuance — they are there in her voice.

Single words and phrases are subtly or not-so-subtly emphasized and heightened, given their own hue. There is the absolute delight you feel when, over several chapters, she describes her almost helpless attraction to the smiling, super-confident, relaxed good man who would eventually become her husband. Try as she might — and she did try, because, at one point, she was his supervisor at her law firm — she could not resist him. As we listen to her getting to know this man who has a delightful swagger to him, and that smile we know so well, we learn why. She loves Barack Obama’s big heart, his ideals, his goodness. You hear the inevitability in the wry tone of her voice, a kind of “Oh, well, why bother to fight this” tone that made me smile.

When her husband decides he wants to become a politician, Michelle Obama’s greatest worry is what this will do to her family. We know, of course, this is not an unfounded concern. One of the shocks of the book that we share with her is the shock Michelle Obama’s feels once her private life becomes a public one. Nothing can prepare a person for this, and you can sense the bewilderment and the helplessness in her voice, the ineffectual protest, as this ravenous scrutiny from the voters and their hungry surrogates, the press, intrudes. She can’t protect her children, herself, or her husband from comments and accusations she never even had to consider before Barack Obama became a state senator, then a US Senator, and then President. This is the voice of a mother and wife trying to protect the people she loves, and she just can’t, at least not as she would have wanted. There is a sense of failure here, of even a mother’s fierceness being unable to shield her daughters and husband from danger, and who wouldn’t feel that? You do not doubt her sincerity. You hear it.

You can hear it clearly in the anxiety she has after her husband is elected President and she and her husband have to choose a school for her children. How will they contend with the special treatment they’re given, with the new celebrity and uniqueness? Their mother is well aware they didn’t ask for this.

Michelle Obama asked her mother to live with them in the White House. Reluctantly, her mother agreed. It’s fun to listen to her wryly describe her mother’s staunch determination to come and go from the White House, as she pleased, to meet friends for lunch and shop where she wanted to shop. When people came up to her and said she looked like Michelle Obama’s mother, her reply was, “I hear that all the time.”

I learned as much about Michelle Obama from her voice as she read her story as I did from listening to the words themselves she wrote. I’m sure I’ll never meet her. But that doesn’t matter. We hung out together for 1700 miles, just the two of us. We had a great time. It was enlightening and a lot of fun. I was sad to see her go when I pulled up to my final destination in Maine. I’d go with her on a road trip anytime, anywhere. Thanks, Michelle Obama, for coming with me.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Hateful Things

The 11th century Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon wrote something called "Hateful Things" in which she listed things that, well, she hated.  For example, "One is in the middle of a story when someone butts in and tries to show that he is the only clever person in the room."

On a more contemporary note, the great John Waters, in his book, Crackpot, has a chapter titled, "Hatchet Piece: 101 Things I Hate."  One is, "Obnoxious mimes who think they're poignant." John, I agree. The other 100 things he hates are just as satisfying.

Yes, I know about 19th century writer William Hazlitt's essay, "On the Pleasure of Hating." But it's boring.

This has prompted me to create my own brief list of hateful things.  I recommend you try it for psychic cleansing.  I'm not going to include the obvious, like our orange-maned prez, because what's unique and idiosyncratic about that?  So, without further, etc.

I hate:

The way waiters and waitresses approach your table every three minutes and ask, "Are you enjoying your meal?"

When people drop the "g" at the end of a word in order to appear folksy.  Sarah Palin does it every fifteen seconds.  As in "We're savin' America."  And, sorry to say, so does Michelle Obama.

The way when you're in a group there's always one person who makes decision-making laborious and time-consuming.

The way vegetarians can be arrogant.  They somehow think their refusal to eat meat is angelic.  They come to your house for dinner and expect you've prepared a special meal for them.

When people put their drinks on books.

Here's an obscure one for kicks.  I hate the way New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin refers to Alice Waters, the California restauranteur, as, simply, "Alice," as if we knew her personally.  

How people, often salespeople, take your name as you've given it to them and call you by a nickname you never use.  As in, me: "I'm Richard."  Salesperson: "Great to meet you, Dick."

People who make you run for the door they've opened for themselves when you're about forty feet behind them carrying stuff.

Whistlers.

People who throw paper towels in public urinals and sinks.

People who cut in line, especially the ones who do it as if they didn't.

People who are consistently late for meetings, dinners, anything, who act as if it's desirable to be late.

When someone you loan a book to doesn't return it.

The way men use a handshake to demonstrate how strong they are by crushing your hand.

People who can't laugh at themselves.  They take offense if you tease them about something they did or said, looking sour or huffy.

The way people talk on their cellphones in parks--or anyplace in nature. Actually, there's so much to hate about cellphones, I probably need to write an entire post about that.