Thursday, January 31, 2019

Books & Co., RIP


Some people mourn movie theaters that have closed down. Some, amusement parks by the sea. Some, those old fashioned drug stores with counter service. Some, race tracks.

I mourn the passing of bookstores. I lived in New York City for thirty-five years, and I saw many of them close. Some of these privately-owned bookstores were marvelous, too marvelous for words. When they closed, it was hard on the heart. Take Books & Co., which was located on Madison Avenue and 74th Street.
                                                                     

The place was a two-story gem with rust-hued brick walls, one of which had an astonishing floor-to-ceiling selection of books that stretched on and on. Exploring that wall of titles, you felt like Howard Carter when he looked into Tutankhamun's tomb for the first time and was asked by those behind him if he saw anything. He replied, “Yes, wonderful things.” The place had a staff of seasoned book sommeliers who paired you with the right book for your particular taste of the moment. You could give them the barest direction, and they'd come up with something delicious for you. It was impossible not to make a discovery there.  I spent many happy hours in that store browsing, imbibing titles, finding wonderful things.  
                                                                         
Books & Co. staff with Jeannette Watson, owner, center

In doing some research for this post, I discovered that a book has been written about the store and its owner, Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co.  Who would have thought? I remember seeing Jeannette Watson, slim, with bright blonde hair, always dressed immaculately, obviously proud and pleased of her bookstore, as well she should have been. She was a hands-on, caring owner who, for twenty years, offered New Yorkers the most exquisite experience of the mind. As far as I'm concerned, Jeannette Watson was a saint, if there ever was one.
                                                                               
Jeannette Watson (center) with Erica Jong

The store closed twenty-two years ago, in 1997. Before it did, there were efforts to save it, but they were futile. It was learned later that Ms. Watson had yearly put about $100,000 of her own money into the bookstore to offset losses. The rent was too high, though. Remember the neighborhood, one of the toniest in the world. So, we lost it. But for twenty years, those of us fortunate enough to have lived in New York at the time had something unique.  

The loss of a great bookstore leaves a special kind of ache. In some metaphorical way, those of us who loved Books & Co. are still wearing black.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Whole 30 Terror

I blame my sister.

Over the Christmas holidays she told me about the Whole 30 "experience."  It's a regimen that cuts out almost all foods--except water--for thirty days.  Well, that's an exaggeration, but not by much.

I am now about two-thirds through this despotic diet, and I can report the following emotions: rage, resentment, hallucinatory behavior, deviousness, loneliness and dreams of butter.

I should've suspected something when my sister said, "It's only for 30 days.  Even you can do that."

In fact, the author of this diet comes at you like a Marine drill sergeant, "Don't you dare tell me this is hard.  Beating cancer is hard.  Birthing a baby is hard. Losing a parent is hard."  It's as if a Catholic priest married a Jewish mother.  There is enough guilt here to spread over a million bagels.

You're not allowed to eat much of anything that makes you happy.  No pasta. No bread  No wine--not even to cook with.  No sugar.  No milk or cream.  But wait, there's more.  No beans, peas, peanuts and even all forms of soy, including tofu.  No tofu!  I always considered tofu the single reason to avoid health food.  Even that tasteless block of bouncy nothingness isn't good enough for this diet.

The other night three of us on this diet had dinner at a restaurant.  Naturally, the choices were limited.  Of course I couldn't help reading the other, "non-compliant" selections on the menu.  That caused me to go into a crazed reverie, just like one of those World War II movies where two guys are in a foxhole and one of them starts dreaming of home.

"You know what I want?" I said.

"What?" a fellow Whole 30 sufferer at the table asked.

"I want a huge slice of home-made apple pie, just like my mom made in Brooklyn where I grew up."

"You're not from Brooklyn," the other Whole 30 pilgrim said.

"I am now.  That pie will ooze juices from the apples, and the crust will be buttery, and the edges will be crisp and brown."

"Stop it!"

"And my ma will put an enormous scoop of vanilla ice cream on it, the best vanilla ice cream in the world, and it will be creamy and rich."

"Shut up, Richard!"

"And that cold delicious ice cream will start to melt, and it will begin to drip into the pie."

"Stop it, or I'll come at you!"

"And before I take my first bite I'll lower my nose to the pie, and smell the crusty apple beautifulness and feel the coolness of the ice cream."

"I'm going to shoot you!"

"Then I'll take my fork and cut into my ma's great homemade apple pie, and I'll put an enormous portion on my fork with a big portion of vanilla ice cream, and I'll slowly bring it up to my..."

NOTE:  The post stops here for some reason.  Obviously something terrible went on in that restaurant at this point.






Monday, January 21, 2019

The Thief of Dreams

With every new Donald Trump announcement or proclamation that draws on the worst in us, I think about my daughter.

She’s young, only twenty-five. Her life is really just beginning. She’s at the age where you make dreams about the future, think about the life you will lead, let your hopes and aspirations wander as they will. Anything is possible. All doors are open. This is a moment we cherish for our children and try our best to prepare them for. We had such moments when we were young. They only appear once, and they are glorious, full of exciting uncertainty and potential. In those moments, we can be anything, do anything. Why not?

I had that freedom to dream, that open chance at optimism, when I was young.  Now that I’m not young, I know well how precious that dreaming was.
But every morning I get up to some new haughty, unsettling declaration by Donald Trump that I know must infringe on those freshly minted dreams my daughter and others like her are making. His denial of climate change is possibly the most arrogant of his declarations.  With that, he commandeers the safety and well-being of our planet and its people.

WBUR in Boston reported recently on the growing problem of climate anxiety.  I have had conversations with younger people, some of whom have decided not to have children because of the precarious state of our future.  What about the many of us who do have children?    

It’s hard to build dreams, those most delicate of bridges, in such an atmosphere of darkness.  I am so angry at Trump. I am angry at him for many reasons, but mainly I am angry at him for stealing the future.

How dare he. How dare he pollute the ability for young people to plan their futures in serenity and peace and with hope. I’m calling him out for the thief he is.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Courageous Jean Rhys


Nobody writes like Jean Rhys. Comes near it.
She defies categorization. If you read her books, Voyage in the Dark, Good Morning, Midnight and After Leaving Mr. Mackensie, for example, you may find yourself unable to think of any other books to compare them to—except another book by Jean Rhys.

Born in Dominica in 1890, she died in England in 1979, having lived her life mostly in literary obscurity.  Much of her writing concerns women who are desperate and in despair, usually after a love affair gone wrong, and usually broke and in very reduced circumstances. Rhys never flinches. She stares it all in the eye with her deceptively simple prose, and writes about fear and loneliness and loss of dignity with great searing bravery. This is not about being selectively confessional—and aren't all confessions selective? This is about standing naked before the reader.
Jean Rhys
Every time I read this passage from Good Morning, Midnight, I wonder if I will ever have the guts to write like her, with such cold-eyed candor. The heroine, down and out, is thinking about her circumstances:

“On the contrary, it’s when I am quite sane like this, when I have a couple of extra drinks and am quite sane, that I realize how lucky I am. Saved, rescued, fished-up, half-drowned, out of the deep, dark river, dry clothes, hair shampooed and set. Nobody would know I had ever been in it. Except, of course, that there always remains something. Yes, there always remains something….Never mind, here I am, sane and dry, with my place to hide in. What more do I want?...I’m a bit of an automaton, but sane, surely—dry, cold and sane. Now I have forgotten about dark streets, dark rivers, the pain, the struggle and the drowning….Mind you, I’m not talking about the struggle when you are strong and a good swimmer and there are willing and eager friends on the bank waiting to pull you out at the first sign of distress. I mean the real thing. You jump in with no willing and eager friends around, and when you sink you sink to the accompaniment of loud laughter.” 
In later life, when fame and honors were bestowed, she said, simply, "It has come too late."
But there are the books.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Cast Iron Skillet


There are certain tools, implements, that I love more than any others.

These objects are usually simple and, because they've been around so long--sometimes hundreds even thousands of years--they can hardly be improved on.

I mean things like the broom, shovel, rake, hoe, hammer, bucket.  How can you do better than their ergonomic brilliance?

I put the cast iron skillet in that pantheon.

I have cooked with a cast iron skillet all my life, and will continue to do so until I'm too weak to turn on the stove.  It is the most versatile of all cooking implements, the longest-lasting, and, for its service, the most economical.  At Target, you can purchase a 12" number for $20.  Can you beat that?

$20 for a pan that will work wonders!  For years and years to come!

For me, the cast iron skillet is inextricably linked to southeastern Virginia where I grew up.

There is no better conductor of heat.  And it is heat that is distributed evenly, not in one small area.

Yes, I admit, it looks like a brute, but it has the soul of a sensitive poet, and even more appealing, it will never let you down.  It's not finicky.  It's not high maintainence.  It's virtually indestructible.  You can cook almost anything with it.  And I have.

My hero

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Weight


I was listening to Terry Gross on "Fresh Air" the other day interviewing Ben Stiller about his TV miniseries, "Escape at Dannemora."  Terry asked Ben about Patricia Arquette gaining a lot of weight for her part in the series.  Forty pounds, to be exact!  Stiller didn't want Arquette's "classic movie star looks" to get in the way of playing the part of the prison employee who aided the convicts in their escape.  Who was herself a plus-size.

This set me to thinking about another, recent actor weight gain, that of Christian Bale to play the part of Dick Cheney in the movie "Vice."  He, too, gained forty pounds, with perhaps a few extra lbs. in the bargain.  When Terry interviewed the director of "Vice," she brought up Bale's weight gain.

The most celebrated weight gain in filmdom is Robert De Niro's 60-pound increase in the 1980 movie, "Raging Bull."  Sixty pounds!  Now, that's artistic dedication.  Terry has never interviewed De Niro, but if she did, I bet she'd ask him about gaining all that weight.

This set me to thinking why no one applauds me for my own weight gain.

In the last four months alone, I've gained fifteen pounds--to play the role of me.

Do you know how hard that's been?  You have to focus, you have to be unrelenting, you have to want to do it. This incredible act of sacrifice on my part has been overlooked by the media, especially by Terry Gross.  Does she care that I've had to go to the mall at least twice to buy new clothes to accommodate my increased waist size?  I don't think so.  Does she care that I'm having difficulty tying my shoes?  No!

What about compensation?  I'm sure those actors received considerable chunks of change to put on their pounds.  How much did I receive for my arduous weight gain?  How much do you think?  $0.  Plus, I'm sure they were reimbursed for all the food they ate.  Nobody's reimbursing me for that coconut cream pie I ate at one sitting, I can tell you.

All of this is in the service of playing me. A very difficult, trying role, I assure you.

Sure, I may not be a household name.  But I am in my household.

Every day, I'm striving to make playing me memorable and believable.  By gaining pounds.  And more pounds.  I work just as hard at it as Patricia, Christian and Robert did.  Maybe harder.

Terry, I'm available for "Fresh Air."  I think my story is one worth telling.

Let's give credit where credit is due.


Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Kind of Writer You Want to Be


Young writers are often reluctant to ask for help from established writers they know.

Unpublished and unknown, these young writers can be hesitant ask a favor from a published writer who they have taken a writing workshop, or class, from.  Even if that published writer is admiring of their work.

Ask.

When your ship comes in, you can help the next boatload of young writers. 
Lamentably, though, I've seen too many young writers who want you to buy their first small press (expensive) books, to attend the local production of their plays, to go to their poetry readings—and you do, often paying full price, even when it's a stretch for you.  Then when they begin to have a career, they forget those lean years when stand-up people supported them when very few others did. And they don't help others.  They seem to have conveniently lost their memory of those struggling years.

I know such a writer here in New Orleans.  I know such a writer in New York.  I know others elsewhere. The way things go with that sort of thing, those writers may just glide through life taking and not giving back and doing just fine.  We all know justice can be fickle and arbitrary.  
Don't be one of those writers. It's a kind of betrayal to the gods who have been so good to you.  Remember how bolstering to your spirit it was to have someone on your side when you were struggling.  To have someone believe in you, often when you didn't believe in yourself--at least momentarily. 
On the other hand, there is someone like Maurice Ruffin, a New Orleans writer who is experiencing justified acclaim—and surely will experience more when his first novel, We Cast a Shadow, is published at the end of January 2019.  
Maurice consistently praises and promotes other writers on facebook and elsewhere.  He is a generous spirit and is keenly aware of his well-earned good fortune, but he does not hesitate to make the public aware of someone else’s talent. Just follow him on facebook, and you'll see. Fortunately, there are others like him.  Who understand what even a small gesture of recognition and praise can do for a young writer--much less handing that writer the name of an agent or editor.  My old friend, Charles Salzberg, in New York, is another.  He's spent a lifetime helping other writers.  I know.  I was one.
That’s the kind of writer you want to be.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Reclaiming Hope


A great depression has settled on us.  Not economic, but emotional, spiritual, psychic.  Whereas in the past, if you said the future looks bleak, you could dismiss that as someone's opinion.  That's not true anymore.  I needn't go into the details about climate change, which everyone knows by now, and the dire predictions emanating from scientists.  But it's real.

People do not know what to do.  Anything they think of doing seems futile.  No matter what, the inevitable will arrive, they say.   The has produced a kind a paralysis.  An inability to plan with any certainty.  Why bother?  And worst of all, it has caused the complete abandonment of hope.

Dante knew what he was talking about.  The words he decided to write on the gates of hell in his great poem say, "Abandon all hope, you who enter here."  What could be more devastating and more final than to deprive you of hope?

We have as our head of state a man who in everything he does crushes hope.  We know, in our hearts, that if we had a leader committed to saving us from the sins we have committed as humans in harming the earth, then hope, and its first cousin--optimism--could flourish.

I have talked to people in their twenties who are, quite simply, continually depressed.  They are in despair about the future.  Some have children and do not know how they can assure their children about their lives.  I have a daughter in her twenties.  Every day, I internally apologize to her.  I feel like crying all the time.

I've written about this before, in a post called The Thief of Dreams.  The thief of dreams is Donald Trump.  No person has the right to destroy someone's ability to hope and to dream.

Depression may be the most onerous of human emotions.  Its strength is incalculable.

Right now, right this minute, we are under the sway of this collective depression.  We have to summon all our will to combat it.  How?  We assume strength.  We fight.

With all our might.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Give-to-Italy Fund

No country has given more to the world than Italy.

Especially when you consider its size.  It's small.  Put it in China, and it would disappear.

Yet, this boot-shaped place has produced more things that lift the sprit than can be calculated.

The cities alone: Rome, Florence, Venice.  Has there ever been a city with such a remarkable premise as Venice?  What of the imagination and confidence that said--a city with water for roads?  Why not?

Then there are the artists and their creations.  Michelangelo and his Chapel.  And so much more.  Leonardo and his Last Supper. And so much more.  Raphael and his School of Athens.  And so much more.  Let's not leave out Titian.  Caravaggio.  Bernini.  Botticelli.  Donatello.  Giotto.  And so many more.



Then there is the language.  Like a melody.  The language that opera composers love the best.  That uplifts you when you hear it.  That expresses love and passion magnificently.



Then there is the food.  Well, this paragraph could go on forever.  And remember, Catherine de' Medici, born in Florence, took her cooks with her to France when she married Henri II.  That changed everything.  French cuisine--thank you, Italy.

The list--the list!  Goes on.  And on.



My point and I have one is that Italy is struggling with the weight of the people who come as tourists to savor these contributions to beauty.  The money these visitors spend is not nearly enough to provide for the safety and longevity of this beauty.  Venice is sinking, day by day.  Did you see the video of waiters serving food in a flooded Venice restaurant?  It's amusing, and it shows Venetian pluck, but it's no joke.  The city is in peril.


Rome has its own pressing problems.  The New York Times recently published a piece, "Rome in Ruins," about the city's ongoing problem with pollution and garbage.

My point?  Yes, my point.  Which is: give Italy money.  The governments of the world should give Italy money just for being Italy.  For how much they've given us.  For how much they continue to give.  (For the time being, anyway.)

How would this work?  I don't know.  Is it unpractical?  Probably.  Absurd?  You could say yes.

But.  What is worth saving?

Think about it, at least.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Wallowing


I wallow in a lot of things, but self-pity, or feeling sorry for myself, is the most frequented pool where I do my world-class wallowing.  Especially now that I'm getting older. And older.

I realize that people can't stand self-pity, so I have to be creative. Inventive.  I'll start with something everyone can feel empathy for and then slip in my troubles. "Hey, those protestors sure got a raw deal and I'm lonely."

Here's another one that I thought up recently:  "President Trump announced that he isn't willing to compromise on his border wall and that face in the mirror is frightening."

I seize opportunities on the run.

Checkout lady at local supermarket:

"That will be fifty-three dollars and seventeen cents."

"Here's my card."

"Debit or credit?"

"I'm getting old."

I've even tried something like this with my pharmacist.  He just picked up the phone and called security.

Speaking of that: I'm really insecure.

The other day, I got so desperate, I splurged and hired one of those bi-planes that companies use for skywriting. I waited for an incredibly clear day and had them write....

                               RICHARD GOODMAN IS SEVENTY-THREE.  WHY?

all across the sky.

Anyway, I said I have to be creative. Well, you're listening aren't you? See? So, now that I have you here, I've got a few problems I want to share with you. Let's start off with the loss of memory I'm experiencing and then we'll move on to....