Saturday, February 26, 2011

We Are Half Awake

I'm back! It's been "one of those weeks" during which I was up, I was down, I was overwhelmed and overworked and couldn't think of much beyond getting through the work day (and I do mean work!), getting home and going to bed.

But in the meantime I've had some bloggable inspirations which I intended to begin putting into writing today, when I received the following from a friend. You may have received it too. It's from and so well worth reading that I decided not simply to link to the article, which you can do here, but to post it here, along with the appropriate attribution. I hope you find some nugget here that gives you an "aha!" moment. I did.

by Alexander Green
Although the economy is on the mend and the stock market has taken a big

bounce off the bottom, tough times remain for many Americans.

Unemployment is high. Bankruptcies and foreclosures are near record
levels. Repo lots are overflowing. Worry and stress are on the rise in many

Some of these folks might want to visit psychologist William James, even
though he's been dead for a hundred years.

James (1842-1910) was an author, philosopher, scientist, Harvard professor and giant in American intellectual history.

He trained as a medical doctor but never practiced medicine. He broke new ground as a physiologist and psychologist. He studied religion and psychic phenomena and wrote three classic books, including The Varieties of Religious Experience, the acknowledged inspiration for the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the world's most effective treatment programs.

Although his name is not widely recognized outside academia today, James
made major contributions to psychology, philosophy, literature, teaching
and religious studies. He coined numerous words and phrases including
pluralism, time-line, stream of consciousness, live option and moral
equivalent of war. Historian Jacques Barzun writes that James' book
Principles of Psychology is "an American masterpiece which, quite like
Moby Dick, ought to be read from beginning to end at least once by every
person professing to be educated. It a masterpiece in the classic and total

What do so many find inspiring about James? In part, it was his life itself,
his legendary zest for living. James loved to travel, hike and mountain-
climb. He served as a naturalist and accompanied Louis Agassiz on his
expedition to explore the upper reaches of the Amazon. He churned out
articles, books and hundreds of public lectures while carrying a full teaching
load at Harvard. When he died from heart failure in his late 60s, his
contemporaries said he had literally worn himself out.

Despite James's many accomplishments, his life was not without its
setbacks. He suffered from ailments of the eyes, skin, stomach and back. He
was diagnosed with neurasthenia and depression. He contracted smallpox in
Brazil. Three siblings, including novelist Henry James and diarist Alice
James, were afflicted with invalidism. His beloved sister Alice died of breast
cancer at 44.

However, James believed that we are meant to spend our lives being
curious, active, and fully engaged.

He was also one of the first to try to reconcile science and religion. In
particular, he was interested in human spiritual experience, a realm that is
difficult to capture by logic or observation, and nearly impossible to nail down

Yet he found a way. James is the father of the distinctly American
philosophy known as Pragmatism, the doctrine that truth reveals itself in
practice, regardless of its origins. Something is true if it doesn't contradict
known facts and it works.

James thought a belief should be judged by its results. He was more
interested in the fruits of an idea than its roots and advised people to look for
a truth's "cash value," arguing that a belief is true if it allows you to live a
fuller, richer life.

He was particularly interested in showing men and women how to convert
misery and unhappiness into growth. As you can see from some of his
remarks, the approach is nothing if not pragmatic:

- Lives based on having are less free than lives based either on doing or being.

- Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the
consequences of any misfortune.

- If you believe that feeling bad or worrying long enough will change a past
or future event, then you are residing on another planet with a different
reality system.

- Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources
are than we had supposed.

- Compared with what we ought to be, we are half awake.

- Action may not bring happiness but there is no happiness without action.

- Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.

- Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.

- Begin to be now what you will be hereafter.

James taught that we can change our lives by altering our attitudes of mind.
He called pessimism "a disease" and said it could be cured by substitution.
You can change, for example, "I have to exercise today" to "I get to exercise
today." "I get to visit my grandmother" can be substituted for "I have to visit
my grandmother." The shift is a subtle one, but powerful.

The essence of a belief is the establishment of a habit, a willingness to act.
That begins with a change of mind. The best motivation is always an
inspiriting attitude.

As a pioneering psychologist, James's primary interest was how the mind
can bring about life-changing effects. Yes, we can always grouse about
circumstances. But it is not what fate does to us that matters. What matters
is what we do with what fate hands us.

"All that the human heart wants," declared James, "is its chance."

Carpe Diem,


Copyright © 2011 by The Oxford Club, L.L.C

Monday, February 21, 2011

Presidents Day

I’ve been doing some preliminary research into buying a new mattress. But mattresses, good ones, don’t come cheap, especially the fancy-schmancy, pillow-top models like the ones they use in fancy-schmancy hotels, so we’ll have to forego those and just settle for a good, new mattress. On sale.

Of course the sales started last week, it being President’s Day and all, and as I checked out the online flyers and specials, it got me thinking: I remember when we celebrated Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s birthday separately. (Of course, I remember when Kurt Russell was a child star.)

But maybe because of all the turmoil and tumult going on in the Middle East, (and Wisconsin for that matter), I was reminded of Washington’s birthday and why we used to celebrate it as its own holiday. (For the whole story of Presidents Day go to It’s unfortunate that, over time Washington, Lincoln and other remarkable historical figures have become remote, ossified, less-than-human figures, rather like the animatronic characters at a Disney theme park, suitable only for decorating money, illustrating sale coupons, and being spoofed in commercials and on the internet. (To see my own participation in such buffoonery go here.) But these were real people who, in many cases, risked everything they had including, famously, “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor”. It was no joke. They knew that, as Ben Franklin only partly jested, they would either hang together in signing the Declaration of Independence, or they would hang separately.

And it’s worth remembering that freedom, real freedom, is in very short supply in the world today. There are thousands and thousands of people demonstrating in Madison, Wisconsin. They’re covered in the media, their faces are shown and, while they may be tired or fed up and angry, they’re not being mowed down by military forces as they are in, for example, Libya, where upwards of 1,000 people have been murdered by Qaddafi’s forces, some shot from low-flying jets. Just for protesting their government.

We’re very, very fortunate here in these United States, whatever we may think of whoever’s in the White House (or the State House or any other House) at any given moment. We’d do well to remember how lucky.

Now, about that mattress…

Friday, February 18, 2011

Life is a Drag (or, It Takes a Lot of Money to Look This Cheap)

At the urging of my dear friend Terry Sue, following a recent Facebook comment in which I mentioned “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, I’m going to admit to having at least one guilty pleasure.

I confess it, I watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. It was an accident -- I thought I had stumbled on an episode of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”. It’s understandable: the clothes were outrageous, the makeup was overdone, and by their own admission this was a group of “fierce” “bitches” whose attitude was uniformly appalling. But “Drag Race” is a different animal. For one thing, it’s a real cross-section. There are Hispanic bitches, and plus-size bitches, and Asian bitches and midwestern bitches. But they all have one thing in common: an enormous walk-in closet. Miles of duct tape. Or an outsize personality.

It’s actually all of the above, in addition to being driven to win, win, win... at any cost. Didn’t Mimi Imfurst physically upend India Ferrah as they were lip synching for their lives recently, and get her not inconsiderable rear end booted off the show? Girl, you just don’t do that!

I must hand it to these girls: they’re taking this very seriously, and all for a lifetime supply of makeup (Krylon? Isn’t that spray paint?), and the opportunity to go on a national tour of some kind on behalf of Absolut vodka. Well, and there is the $75,000.

And on the runway at the end of the end of the show, during judging, there’s the ominous music, that reverberating “whoompf!” sound when bad news is delivered, and the tears when someone is eliminated; or better, when someone who thinks she’s about to be eliminated is! “Thank you, RuPaul!” Not to mention all the backstage drama, tears, and catfighting.

Joking aside, these girls bring a lot of baggage to the Interior Illusions Lounge. The “fierce”, “I’ll-do-whatever-I-have-to-do” attitude seems to be covering up any number of fears and insecurities. It’s addictive stuff, even if it makes “Project Runway” look like a National Geographic special. 

Now, while I love RuPaul, my favorite female impersonators are still Lypsinka and Charles Pierce, though Pierce always referred to himself as an “illusionist”.

photo: Russell Maynor
I first encountered Lypsinka in Los Angeles. She was performing a one-woman show there, which had recieved a rave review in one of the LA weekly papers, and the show it described was not the standard-issue drag show. Once I saw the show, I understood how difficult it must have been to describe in print. Lypsinka had created and elevated performance art, using audio clips from old movies and TV shows and musicals, familiar and obscure, all lip-synced with split-second precision. According to The Hollywood Reporter "Lypsinka is like nothing you've seen before! Theatrical artistry that never seems to slow down.” And the New York Times has it right in saying "Lypsinka is a fascinating, funny and disturbing spectacle." As hilarious as her shows are, there’s a kind of psychotic undertone that keeps you just a little off-kilter. Check out this video: pay attention at about three minutes in, when the madness really starts. There’s another Lypsinka show called “The Passion of the Crawford”, all clips from Joan Crawford interviews, movies, and public appearances. It is, in a word... well, you’d have to see it to understand.

Charles Pierce was, as he correctly identified himself, an illusionist. He “did” the great ladies of stage and screen including Tallulah Bankhead, Carol Channing, Joan Collins and, my favorite, Bette Davis. It’s not that he was so convincing. He only marginally looked like Davis and while he matched the cadences of her speech, the odd, swooping inflections and emphases, he didn’t really sound like her. But he had the mannerisms, the popping eyes and the wild, brittle gestures – including the way she smoked a cigarette – down pat. It was an impression, a broad sketch and, more often than not, an excuse for a few bawdy jokes and some hilarious swipes at Joan Crawford.

I saw him live several times, but my favorite moment was at a little club in Greenwich Village where I went to see him by myself. I was sitting at a table right next to the stage, stage right. At one point, as Bette Davis, Pierce came to the edge of the stage and asked for a cigarette. (This was back when I smoked.) So I took two out of my pack and lit them, à la Paul Henreid in “Now Voyager”. I think she got a kick out of it.

Finally, I’ve had my own brushes with drag over the years, including a Halloween years back, again in Los Angeles, when I attended a party as Madonna Reed. (It was when Madonna was at the height of her popularity and I hoped enough people of a certain generation would remember Donna Reed well enough to get the joke.) I wore a bustier and an apron, and carried an electric mixer. There was a prize for the best costume, and while it was close, the lady in the tutti-frutti hat took home the trophy.

Don’t look for me on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” anytime soon. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Weird Thing About Grief

I happened across the following this morning when I logged onto my computer. The link was posted on a news site, a short article about how actor Liam Neeson is faring two years after the death of his wife Natasha Richardson in a skiing accident.

“But that's the weird thing about grief," he says. "You can't prepare for it. You think you're gonna cry and get it over with. You make those plans, but they never work… It hits you in the middle of the night -- well, it hits me in the middle of the night… I'm out walking. I'm feeling quite content. And it's like suddenly, boom. It's like you've just done that in your chest."

When I read that, I thought “Yes! That’s exactly the way it feels!” The “boom” to which Neeson refers is, I assume, that thump! – the physical sensation you have when you’re suddenly struck with some revelation or memory you thought you’d tucked neatly and permanently away.

I’ve experienced my share of loss over the years, starting with the death of my grandfather in 1955. My parents had just left for a trip to Europe and I was to stay with my grandparents. In the middle of the night of my parents’ departure I woke up, aware that something was wrong: there were hushed voices, other people in the house. And the next morning, when I went into my grandmother’s tiny kitchen, where she was dutifully making breakfast, I knew, without being told, that Grandpop was gone.

Years later my grandmother died and I flew home from California for the funeral.

In January of 1995 my then-partner Robert succumbed to complications due to AIDS. Following his wishes, I threw a party in his memory, catered, butlered, the works. At the end the guests released dozens of white balloons into the blue sky over Hollywood.

In July of 2005 my mother died just shy of her 96th birthday. A day or two afterward, I was staying overnight to look after my father and went to bed in my mother’s room. And I swear, as I dropped off to sleep, someone sat on the edge of the bed and tucked me in.

In November of 2009 my father died after moving out of his house and a series of health crises. Chris and I were with him, holding his hands as he took his last breath. I think it might have been a sigh of relief.

And in between there have been more distant family members, friends, people I had lost track of and tried to find over the years, only to learn finally that many of them were gone, most too young.

I attended the funerals, I arranged for Robert’s memorial in Los Angeles, I settled my father’s estate and sold his house. I know they’re gone. I know it. And I was told early on that there is no one, proper way to grieve, no generally accepted time frame, after which you should be “over it” and ready to get on with life. It’s different for everyone and it takes time. That’s what I was told.

For a while after each of these losses it was more acute, once I had gotten over the shock, done what needed to be done – then I was able to sort of fall apart. And for months after I would have spells of the most profound sadness (not depression) and wouldn’t be able to think why, until I remembered…

But I just wasn’t prepared for how long the little aftershocks would continue. To this day, when something good happens, or when I’ve had a particularly good experience, I will often start to think “That was great, I should call Mom—“ or “Dad would get a kick out of this, I’ll tell him—“ Then I think, “Oh, yeah.” And I smile a little and marvel at the tricks your mind can play when you’re not really paying attention. I suppose at this point it’s not grief anymore, per se. It’s a kind of wistfulness that washes over you, like an odd, warm shiver, and then passes.

I suppose, too, that mixed in with the sadness at the loss, there’s a little sadness at the passing of time, the reminder of one’s own mortality. Especially with parents: they say you’re not really an adult until both your parents are dead.

Funny. Both my parents are gone and there are still days when I feel like a clueless kid. But I like to believe they’re with me, guiding me. (Chris swears my current job is the result of my father’s intervention.)

And so, apart from having been on some movie sets at one time or another, I have this in common with Liam Neeson. 

Life is funny. Grief is weird.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's!

Chris and I celebrated our Valentine’s Day last week at Buddakan in Philadelphia, one of Steven Starr’s many dining establishments here (and elsewhere). It was a quiet evening in the middle of the week, when we knew we wouldn’t be shoe-horned in with everyone else on that special date on that special day. We eat out once in a while, usually someplace local or one of New Jersey’s many great diners. And Wing Hing across the street has terrific Chinese takeout. (Exceptional won-ton soup.) But it felt nice, after a long time, to get “dressed up” and dine in the shadow of a giant gold Buddha, in an establishment that didn’t have placemats advertising the local plumber/printer/nail salon.

It’s easy to lose sight of the romance in a relationship, at least it is for me. I get so caught up in the day-to-day, especially lately, what with a new job and my health issues and all. But a splurge like ours last week can do a lot to renew things.

I feel safe in saying that I’m with someone who seems to understand me and puts up with my moods and flakiness and forgetfulness and the fact that I’m at that point in life where I need the sound on the TV to be just a wee bit louder...

It all fits together: in 1987 Chris and I were in a men’s support group in Philadelphia and I immediately had a crush on him. But it wouldn’t be for another nine years or so, after I had moved to California and back, and he had moved to Minnesota and Maine and back, that we would reconnect and begin this journey together. Now we’re in our tenth year and I don’t know where the time’s gone.

But I do know I’m fortunate and blessed and, like a lot of people I suspect, I lose sight of that from time to time. So I’m taking the opportunity on this very special, made-up holiday, to say “thanks” to a wonderful man. I love you. 

(And I wish I could sing like Michael Buble.) 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Musical, Movie & TV Star Betty Garrett Dies at 91

Another veteran gone...

(AP) LOS ANGELES - Betty Garrett, the vivacious Broadway star who played Frank Sinatra's sweetheart in two MGM musicals before her career was hampered by the Hollywood blacklist, has died in Los Angeles, her son said Sunday. She was 91.

Garrett died Saturday at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, most likely from an aortic aneurysm, said her son, Garrett Parks. Garrett had been in good health and taught her usual musical comedy class at Theater West, the non-profit organization she helped found, on Wednesday night, but Friday checked into the hospital with heart trouble, and died with her family at her side the following morning.

Garrett was best known as the flirtatious girl in love with the shy Sinatra in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and "On the Town," both in 1949, and later in life she became well-known to TV audiences with recurring roles in the 1970s sitcoms "All in the Family" and "Laverne and Shirley."

For the full article go here.

Wonderful Movies 3: Just Tell Me What You Want

In honor of Valentine’s Day I thought I’d recommend another of those terrific movies you’ve likely never heard of, much less seen. I could be wrong, but...

...Just Tell Me What You Want (Warner Bros, 1980) is a love story. In a voiceover at the beginning of the picture the star, Ali MacGraw, even tells us that “it’s a very romantic story”. This is as she’s physically attacking Alan King in the men’s department of Bergdorf-Goodman, (the old Bergdorf’s) beating him with her purse. MacGraw plays “Bones” Burton, mistress to mega-mogul Max Herschel (King). He’s set her up in the television business and she’s made her own success, at some sacrifice. Early in the picture we learn she’s had an abortion (though the word isn’t mentioned) and, as much as she cares for Max, she falls in love with an off-Broadway playwright (Peter Weller) whom she eventually elopes with and marries.

Max has his own share of problems: he’s running a global empire, while taking on mistress after ever-younger mistress, paying for their orthodonture and sending them to good schools. He also has a wife, Connie (a brilliant turn by Dina Merrill), who is in and out of sanitaria for nervous disorders and other maladies, which are probably no more complicated than problem drinking and boredom. Nevertheless, Max loves her, really loves her, and has no intention of divorcing her.

When Max discovers Bones has married and effectively dumped him, he goes into apoplexy and sets out to destroy her professionally and financially. Which leads to the assault in Bergdorf’s, beginning in the men’s haberdashery and continuing into the shoe department and the perfume department, where a good deal of damage is done before she chases him into the street, whaling on him the whole time with her purse.

Eventually Max winds up in the hospital, the victim, he is certain, of a heart attack. It’s here that one of the best zingers in the movie is delivered by a nurse. It’s her only line and she nails it. The screenplay is  acerbic and cynical and beautifully layered and, ultimately, as Bones tells us, very romantic. But it pulls no punches and there’s no mushy ending where everyone suddenly becomes a character out of a Disney cartoon. We learn all we need to know about these people from the writing and the story: ultimately Max makes a huge sacrifice so save Bones and her new husband from ruin, a sacrifice that was meant to be a secret, but which she learns about in a lovely scene with Keenan Wynn as the father of a movie mogul who owns a studio that Max... oh, never mind. You have to see it.

The movie also features Myrna Loy as Max’s long-suffering, loyal personal secretary Stella, who knows all about everything, where the bodies are buried, etc. I think this must have been her last film role and she plays it with the finesse and simplicity and good taste of Old Hollywood, even when the language gets salty (and it does, indeed, get very salty).

The script is by the late Jay Presson Allen, based on her novel. I think it’s the script that brings me back to the movie again and again. The way the characters are delineated is masterful, the plot is set up so carefully and yet so unobtrusively that you hardly notice how it all falls together as the movie progresses. There is no moment when you think, “Oh, I know what’s gonna happen...”

And there’s the music by Charles Strouse (Broadway composer of, among other things, “Annie”). It’s just right – brassy and sharp and very New York. I’ve even managed to “rip” it from the DVD and have the opening and closing credit music in my iTunes library.

As I mentioned, you’ll also get to see some of “old” New York: the old Bergdorf’s before the men’s department moved across the street, and the old Plaza Hotel. There’s a scene in the Palm Court where all the best people used to go for tea in the afternoon. I don’t know what’s in there now, now that it’s a Fairmont property. Oddly, though, except for a few interior design elements in Bones’s apartment and a house in Hollywood, the movie really doesn’t have a dated look to it at all. Ali MacGraw wears Calvin Klein throughout, mostly the same sand-colored slacks and cream-colored satin blouse and it looks as sharp and classic now as it did then.

What really gets me every time is how satisfying this movie is for me, in the audience. It’s a great story, beautifully told with fine performances. Some people think this is Ali MacGraw’s finest performance. It may be, but she’s still no Bette Davis. (Imagine Bette Davis in that role in, say, 1942 when she was at her peak. The language would have been different, but what she could have done with that part! She’d have still been picking pieces of the scenery out of her teeth in 1947.)

Finally, for all its cynicism and moral ambiguity, the movie has class. It's a classy production, it's a classy script (f-bombs notwithstanding), the characters are real and it treats its audience like grownups. Hell, it's got Myrna Loy, how classy can you get? It's the kind of romantic comedy they'd have made in the 30's and 40's if the production code had permitted. Anyone who's thinking of writing/producing/directing a rom-com these days should take a look at Just Tell Me What You Want to see how it should (still) be done.

I don’t want to over-analyze this, but boy Just Tell Me What You Want is a helluva movie. See it with someone you love.

Or whoever’s paying for your braces.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Age-Appropriate Me

A while back I bought a package of five yoga classes on sale through a local “Fun Savers” deal, a program which sends me regular e-mails about offerings from local businesses at rather steep discounts: dinner for two at half price, a haircut and highlights for twenty-five bucks; something called a limoncello body scrub, which apparently exfoliates and gets you a little high at the same time. So the yoga classes (five for $25) were a good deal. It’s what’s called Power Yoga, which sessions last an hour and half and are conducted in a room that’s kept at over 90 degrees F.

Now, since I long ago achieved middle age (unless I’m going to live to be 124 years old) this was a bit of a stretch. I’m not someone who goes to the gym regularly, although I’m not in bad shape and I’ve always been very lucky that I don’t have to be overly concerned with what I eat. So I’ve been very gratified that I’ve always made it through to the end of these Power Yoga sessions, even though I usually feel like giving up halfway through. The nice thing about it, too, is that the classes comprise men and women of all ages and all fitness levels, although the women tend to be younger and, as young women are, more “bendy” than most of the men.

I wore loose workout clothes to my first class, as recommended. Everyone else was similarly attired, including an “older” gentleman, (probably my age), who was rather skinny and pale and had the look of someone who eats extremely healthy food and meditates and enjoys some good weed once in a while. Problem was, he was wearing a very loose athletic T-shirt and very, very short shorts: they might have been his old gym shorts from high school. In the course of the workout those around him were treated, I’m sure, to more than they cared to see.

I felt immediately superior knowing that I’d never dream of showing up for yoga class in such a skimpy little outfit. I can be comfortable and appropriate, I thought to myself. I know who I am. I rock!

But a few days later I found myself in Macy’s, browsing the young men’s department, in particular the skinny jeans, wondering if I’d be able to get away with them on casual Fridays. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before the entity I call “Sane Fred” showed up, tapped me on the shoulder and wagged a finger at me: “Who the hell do you think you are?” Sane Fred asked, “Justin Bieber? You shouldn’t be considering skinny jeans, even if they weren’t, like, $75 a pair! Put them down and step away... step away from the skinny jeans!”

Thank you, Sane Fred. I bought some socks instead.

Like many of my generation I don’t feel my age. In fact, I don’t imagine most people, when they attain a certain point in life, think of themselves as 52 or 61 or 75. Somewhere inside we’re always hovering around 24 or 25 and continue to believe our whole lives are before us, that what we’re going through now is just a little detour and pretty soon we’ll be back on the high road to success and fulfillment in a career we love... except that the detours are my life. I just spent ten minutes trying to find a wonderful quote I once read to that effect – that you can’t spend your life waiting for your life to begin: it’s already begun and you’re missing it! I didn’t find the quote, but Google turned up a number of results that included the words “get my life back”. Well, I’ve got news for everyone who wants their life back: you’ve got it. You may not like it, but it’s your life and you’ve got it. To quote one housewife blogger out there: “God is in the detours”.

My parents at Camp Edwards,
Cape Cod, circa 1946
And I continue to struggle, to a greater or lesser degree, with the idea of what’s “appropriate” for someone my age. I daresay, we baby boomers have taken somewhat better care of ourselves than our parents, that we exercise more and eat “right”, use moisturizer and take more supplements, etc. (Of course, a lifetime of unfiltered Camels, a daily Manhattan or two, and a diet rich in butter, salt and Tasty Kakes didn’t do my father much harm: he died at the age of 92 of, basically, old age. Likewise my mother at 96. So I guess I have good genes to thank, too.)

Over time I have learned, to my credit, that the Calvin Klein low-cut, hip-riding briefs will not make me look like the model on the box. Nor will wearing the latest Polo fragrance transform me into a 22 year-old blond Adonis who looks really hot in jodhpurs and riding boots. And I can work out and Power Yoga myself to death, but I can only turn the proverbial clock back so far. Even the Power90 workout advertised on TV at 2 in the a.m. runs the disclaimer that, even if you manage to get through the grueling workouts and diet regimen, the results achieved by those ripped people on the tube are “not typical”. (And I ask you: do some of those people look kind of odd, now that they’ve powered themselves into shape? Their heads look too big for their bodies, which look weirdly and unnaturally fat-free.)

But: should I give up on the idea of going back to school for a degree in Arts Administration just because I’m not longer a frat boy? (Okay, I was never a frat boy.) Certainly not. Especially if my employer offers tuition reimbursement and I can do the whole thing online for free! How cool, as the kids say, is that?

So age is a state of mind and you’re only as young as you feel, blah, blah. And while I have no problem going to a good diner for the early bird special, I still don’t want to be known as a “seasoned citizen” or a "spry oldster" who’s “75 years young!” It's a fine line to walk, but as long as I have a good attitude, a little perspective and “Sane Fred” to steer me gently away from the hot pink high-top sneakers, I think I’ll be okay.

Thanks for the genes, Mom and Dad!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Spontaneous Order or How to Make a Pencil

I commute to work by train every day, and at the end of the day, when I’ve taken the train back over the bridge and drive out of the commuter parking lot, I take a sort of “back” route, by which I avoid a lot of traffic, traffic lights, etc. Part of this route involves an intersection that was created a little while back as part of a larger roadworks project which involved reconfiguring a traffic circle, creating new jughandles, installing new traffic lights, the works. All ostensibly in the interest of making it safer and more convenient to travel on one of southern New Jersey’s innumerable – and chronically congested – roadways.

I mention all this because the intersection in question has no stop signs. Initially I thought it was because the project wasn’t quite finished and that, surely, sooner or later stop signs would appear. Maybe even the “pre-stop sign” signs that have been popping up in certain parts of the country, which announce – just in case you’re smart enough to drive but too dumb to know that you slow down when you approach a stop sign – “Stop Sign Ahead”. But so far no stop signs have appeared.

I approach this intersection at rush hour five nights a week, and at other times of day on other days of the week. And what’s astonishing to me is that I have yet to see an accident. Granted, I don’t live there. I haven’t seen footage from a traffic cam that monitors the intersection 24 hours a day. But thus far it appears that people are smart enough to know that, when you approach this intersection you slow down, stop if need be, and proceed with caution.

It seems to be an example of a phenomenon known as “spontaneous order” which, according to Lawrence Reed of the Foundation for Economic Education, “…is what happens when you leave people alone…” Reed’s take on “spontaneous order” is skewed more toward the notion of businesspeople and entrepreneurs and how savvy businesspeople see the desires of the public and provide for them, but the principle seems to apply in all sorts of areas of daily life.

Look at a crowded airport. Long lines and frustrated travelers notwithstanding, it really is pretty amazing that the mobs of people who pass through a given large airport on a given day aren’t constantly getting into fights, shoving or shouting matches or all-out brawls. People mind their business and go where they need to go to get where they’re going. They sit and wait. They eat. They have a drink. They read. Sure, there’s airport security around, but there’s no need for Hall Monitors to tell people to stop running or ask for bathroom passes. It all just…works.

Author John Stossel gives another example: “You are our Ruler. An entrepreneur tells you he wants to create something he calls a ‘skating rink’. Young and old will strap blades to their feet and speed through an oval arena, weaving patterns as moods strike them. You'd probably say, ‘We need regulation -- skating stoplights, speed limits, turn signals -- and a rink director to police the skaters. You can't expect skaters to navigate the rink on their own.’ And yet they do. They spontaneously create their own order.

Maybe spontaneous order is such a fact of daily life that it’s easy to not even notice it. And yet, as Reed explains, "We have this ingrained habit of thinking that if somebody plans it, if somebody lays down the law and writes the rules, order will follow. And the absence of those things will somehow lead to chaos. But what you often get when you try to enforce mandates and restrictions from a distant bureaucracy is planned chaos...”

The problem is that, most often, the people in that “distant bureaucracy” have nothing but the best of intentions: to keep us safe, to make us better people and to make our lives happy and problem-free. Utopia waits right around the corner. Thus, criticizing said bureaucracy sounds mean-spirited and misanthropic, and criticism of the bureaucracy is derided and makes people angry. Ah, well…
I was going to go into a whole “thing” about freedom vs. coercion and so on. But a wonderfully simple example probably says it better:

No one person can make a pencil. Probably thousands of people are involved in making the materials that are used in making a pencil: the wood, the brass, the graphite, the rubber for the eraser, the paint, etc. If you go back a step, there are the people who make and operate the machinery used to make the materials that make a pencil. One more step back: people mine iron to make the steel that makes the machines that make the materials that go into a pencil. It's all done without these people even knowing that their work will eventually result in a pencil. Thousands of people going through thousands of steps -- and yet you can buy a pencil for a few cents

It really is kind of a miracle. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

My Friend Joe

Last week Chris e-mailed me an article titled “It’s Never Too Late to Create” by two authors out of the University of Chicago. It highlighted the accomplishments of such late-blooming creators as Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Frost, Paul Cezanne and Clint Eastwood who, in his late 70’s, is making the best films of his career. It’s an interesting article to me, not least because I really believe, deep down, that my most creative and successful years are still ahead of me. I could be, as my grandmother used to say, “full of soup” but I believe it. In any case I haven’t stopped creating entirely just because I have a desk job.

For example, I’m busy adapting a play I wrote to be done on the radio and produced by my still fledgling theater company, Heritage Artists. And last weekend Chris and I were in center city Philadelphia, on our way to Plays & Players Theater, where I was performing with the Hear Again Radio Project in a program of original, old time radio shows. Along the way we ran into a longtime friend of mine, Joe, who was on his way home from church. After talking to him for a few minutes, I thought his story would be a good jumping-off place for a blog entry about creating and changing course and being “along in years”… in short, something about me.

I’ve known Joe for the better part of 25 or 26 years. When I lived in Philadelphia, small town that it is, I would run into him regularly and we often socialized with mutual friends. Then I moved to New Jersey and we lost touch, except for the occasional chance encounter when I was in town. For a while we worked together at the same Big Company in Philadelphia, and he dealt regularly with my boss, who could often be challenging to work with. More than once  he proved to be a calming influence and sounding board. Down the line he introduced me to the work of Pema Chodron, a Buddhist teacher, whose teachings he seems to have absorbed to very good effect.

We took the time last Sunday on that Philly street corner to catch up. I knew Joe had been taking culinary courses, but we learned that he had actually just received his Associate’s degree and is currently an intern at the Sofitel, making soups and sauces. Joe is my age and his achievements not only encouraged me, but I was also struck by the light in his eyes, the joy in his voice and the peace in his whole demeanor.

All the moreso because Joe was diagnosed with HIV back in 1987, when that was still very bad news. I knew that he had been married at one time, had two children and was still good friends with his wife. But when I asked him if I could mention him and his journey on the blog, he not only agreed, he sent me some of his writing, reflecting on his life so far, as well as a chronology of his life from the age of 14. Here’s what I didn’t know about Joe, or had forgotten over the years:

He served in Vietnam and when he returned, in spite of inclinations otherwise, he married the woman he had fallen in love with. Two years later he had his first experience with a man. The guilt and shame triggered, among other things, a love affair with the bottle that continued until 1983. He and his wife had a son and two daughters, the second of whom died in his arms at the age of 21 months, the victim of a silent brain tumor.

He and his wife eventually divorced (in what must have been one of the most amicable, civilized and loving divorces in history), and Joe entered a committed relationship with a man. That relationship ended seven years later. In quick succession he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and was hospitalized with chronic depression and major anxiety disorder. He became a grandfather three times over, went out on disability and eventually headed to culinary school where he was a standout student, all while dealing with the capricious and often devastating effects of HIV. There were times I saw Joe when I thought he didn’t have another month to live. But he always bounced back, and each time he did he seemed to have grown somehow as a result.

And now he’s doing something he truly loves. As he wrote in a journal entry he shared with me: “You know, C.A. finds me amazing for all the adversity I have lived through…Yes it is a lot, but most of it has made me more grateful for all the good that has come my way.

“I do love my life—I like going to bed, I like getting up, I like going to school, I love cooking and creating, I love eating good food…I like listening to the rain at night.

“I try to live my life today aware of these blessings and I try to give back—“

As I said, I had intended originally to mention Joe’s story briefly, as part of a longer post about not giving up on your dreams, being successful later in life, etc. But I think Joe’s story stands on its own and makes my point far more forcefully than any pop psychological pabulum I could come up with. Not only is he creating in the kitchen, he’s created and recreated himself and appears to be living what the literature of recovery refers to as “a contented, useful life”.

I would be thrilled to one day write a great new play, or create a brilliant characterization onstage. But I would hope that, in addition to being so creative so late in life, I would also achieve that sense of gratitude and grace that I saw in Joe’s smile and in his eyes last Sunday.


Monday, February 7, 2011

The Whitney Effect

(With apologies to everyone who will be convinced I’m talking about their favorite singers, even though in most cases I don’t mention any names.)

I was very proud of the fact that I knew who was in the Super Bowl this year. And that something called “the line” was two-and-a-half. I did not, however, watch the Super Bowl. Nor any of the highly hyped commercials, made expressly for the Super Bowl broadcast, for which advertisers pay ridiculous amounts of money for 30 seconds on the air.

I also missed halftime with the Black Eyed Peas and, I’ve heard, assorted others whose names I should know. And I especially missed Christina Aguilera messing up “The Star Spangled Banner”. However, I did catch it on the morning news – not the whole song, just the part Christina messed up. It’s easy to criticize and bellyache but I can’t say that, even if I were a trained singer who made zillions with my voice, I wouldn’t have experienced just a little case of nerves in a venue like the Super Bowl. Especially singing a song like the national anthem which is not an easy tune to belt. And props (as the kids say) to Christina for committing to her performance, belting it out just as though she were singing it all perfectly, until she got back on track.

That said, what I did hear on the clips played over and over on the morning news, was yet another singer taking a perfectly good song and adding a lot – a lot – of extra notes. It’s a style that, in opera anyway, is known as coloratura or “coloring”: elaborate embellishment in vocal music. In pop music terms (and it seems to me there is an official, musical  term for it) it’s what you might call the Whitney Effect, after Whitney Houston who made the style popular. Whitney did have a good voice, once, although now there are people who think she’s done herself so much damage she should stop singing. Forever. But in her heyday there were few who could touch her. And the embellishments she added, all those extra, swooping notes, worked for her. She could pull it off.

But now it seems every other female singer who fancies herself a diva (never mind the presence or absence of actual talent, they all seem to go from unknown directly to diva) makes use of The Whitney Effect to mask a not-so-hot voice. I guess Christina Aguilera has a pretty good voice (it’s not my taste, but hey...) but I would venture to say that, had she not been so focused on wowing the Super Bowl audience with her vocal pyrotechnics, she might have remembered the words to the song and not embarrassed herself. Just once I’d like to hear one of these gals get up and just sing the notes to the damn song, as written, with good diction, in tune, modulating her voice and selling it. Plain and simple. To coin a phrase: those who can, sing; those who can’t, embellish.

It’s like the distinction I make between a singer and a “song stylist”: a singer can sing; a "song stylist" has great gowns.

You see it everywhere. Air fresheners used to be just that, something you sprayed after you cooked fish or, you know, used the bathroom, to freshen the air. Now it's a lifestyle. There are timed air fresheners that go off at set intervals. And motion-sensitive air fresheners that spritz when you walk by. And plug-in air fresheners that smell like orchids now, but will smell like jasmine in fifteen minutes. Or vanilla. Or gingerbread. Give me a break, do our houses really smell that bad?

Or vodka. I remember a time when booze was pretty much amber or clear. Oh, there was Chartreuse and other sticky liqueurs that might have had a little color to them. But for the most part – amber and clear. Now there are 87 different kinds of vodka in as many colors, all infused with pretty, exotic flavors, like sno-cones for grownups. Leave it alone, already! Enough with the embellishments.

Likewise, the woman who used to be Mother or Mom or even Ma, has now become one of any number of maternal incarnations: Grizzly Mom (thank you, Sarah Palin); Tiger Mom (the prototypical Asian mother who pushes her children into Harvard med school, Yale law school and careers on the concert stage); the ubiquitous and almost clichéd Soccer Mom; Working Mom; Stay-at-Home Mom... you get the idea.

My mother, Isaura, at the beach
What’s wrong with just good old Mom? I ask you. Why the embellishments, the titles, the qualifiers? Mothers have, historically, always been multi-taskers, even before the phrase was invented, so let’s leave it at that. Thank God when I was growing up my mother was... Mom. Okay, Mommy to start. Then Mom. She had kids, she ran a business with my father, she was a shining member of her woman’s club, where she always won blue ribbons for her flower arrangements, and she made the best New England clam chowder I’ve ever had. Even on Cape Cod, where she was from. She just was who she was, and would have pooh-poohed the idea that she needed some kind of special, embellished title.

It’s everywhere, this mania for just plain overdoing it. Did anyone see the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Sunset Boulevard”? Lordy! Talk about a bloated, overdone, overwhelming production. I’m surprised Patti LuPone and Glenn Close agreed to be in it: the sets gave better performances than they did. (Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the idea.)

So let’s take a pledge: the next time we’re tempted to add a little something, anything, to something, anything, stop and think: does the coffee really need that infusion of hazelnut? Does the apartment smell that bad? Do you really need to Bedazzle that sweatshirt?

Simplicity, people. It’s cleaner. It’s easier. And, most of the time, it’s just plain classier. Just sing the notes on the page. When you’re Maria Callas or Barbra Streisand, then you can embellish.