Thursday, December 26, 2013

Happy New Year or The Value of Regret

I went to the gym today for the first time in weeks. It seems longer. I've been bothered with pain in my shoulders and arms and I thought a workout of some kind -- any kind -- would do me some good, work out the kinks, that sort of thing. And as I marched myself into the place, hopped up on the treadmill and began it occurred to me that this would be a good thing to start up on a regular basis in 2014, a thought that positively reeks of New Year's Resolution.

I gave up making resolutions years ago. I always had the feeling I was setting myself up for failure, somehow. Quit smoking. Cut down on my drinking. Spend less. Save more. Finish that play. You get the idea. As I understand it, the first of the year is always busiest at the gym. January into February gyms are packed with people who've made well-intentioned resolutions to lose those pounds, tone up, slim down. By March things have slowed down as the regulars keep going and the people who made all those well-intentioned resolutions drop like flies. (Please note that I did, eventually quit smoking and cut out drinking altogether, decisions that had nothing to do with January 1.)

And yet the impetus is there, that desire to somehow be... better. Of course, it pays to be rational about it. Looking at Facebook over the holidays I've seen many posts by people who have been spending time with their families, of origin or otherwise. I've seen pictures of happy children under the tree, happy families crowded onto sofas and around dinner tables. I envy them, as my family has grown smaller over the years, as often happens as we grow older, and my impulse is to resolve to get myself a family for the new year, a gurgling baby, an adorable toddler, some aunts and uncles, you get the picture. Not, as they say, bloody likely. Still it looks as though those lives are working out somehow better than mine in some indefinable way.

It is possible that I will, in fact, go to the gym more often this year, or get involved in some kind of theatrical enterprise, my full-time job notwithstanding. Or go back to my painting. And save more. And it occurs to me that I want to do these things because I haven't been doing them even though they mean something to me. I do feel better after I've worked out, even a little. I am, by nature, an artist and the artist in me is getting itchy.

And what's behind, or underneath, this desire to act and, in a perfect world, hire a personal trainer? Apart from everything else, I think there's a modicum of regret. Regret that I didn't exercise more this past year and can therefore not fit as comfortably into my pants as I used to. Regret that I'm working this full-time job and can't be out there auditioning. (Let it be said, however, that without the full-time job I wouldn't have a regular paycheck and rather good benefits, which I've needed, believe me.) Still it's there, the regret. A touch of disappointment in myself. The desire to be the better person I know a more toned physique will make me. (Okay, intellectually I know that's not true, but the Committee in my head keeps trying to tell me it is.)

Don't get me wrong, I don't spend my waking hours bitterly contemplating the rather large chunk of life, represented by the past year, that has passed by, and rather quickly at that. I get up and get on with it and do my best to live a day at a time, taking on only what's in front of me and not trying to figure out all of life's mysteries, joys and disappointments at once. Still those feelings are there. And the regret. And if that's what it takes to get me back to the gym, or to declutter the apartment, or to be more artistic - act, paint, write, something! -- then so be it.

I won't let it overwhelm me. I'll just acknowledge that it's there and move along. Forward. Ahead. Into 2014 and the next phase of life.

Happy New Year to us all!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Las Damas de Blanco

            I like to try to keep up with the work of the Human Rights Foundation and received a message recently about Cuba’s Ladies in White. The Ladies in White (“Las Damas de Blanco”) is a Cuban civil society organization founded by the very brave wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters of political prisoners jailed during the Castro regime’s “Black Spring” crackdown in 2003. Group members wear white to symbolize their commitment to a peaceful struggle for freedom. Despite repeated arrests and beatings by Cuban authorities, the group marches every Sunday in different locations around Cuba to protest human rights violations under the Castro dictatorship. Berta Soler has led the group since the death of founder Laura Pollán in 2011.
            Recently, the Ladies performed a Sunday march for freedom and human rights after a visit to the church of San Jose de Colon in Matanzas Province. According to the Human Rights Foundation website:

          “A group of government supporters cut off the protest and proceeded to beat and harass the group members, striking and shouting insults at the 12 female members of the group. Sayli Navarro, a group member who took part in the march on July 14, stated that after the mob attacked the peaceful protest, the Ladies took refuge in the home of one of the group members, where “the mob gathered outside her house” and “they began to carry out an ‘act of repudiation,’” throwing objects at the women and shouting insults.
On August 4, the Ladies in White asked Dionisio García Ibáñez, the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, to intervene on their behalf and request that the Cuban government stop the regime’s repressive actions against them.
          “That same day, while a group of Ladies attended mass in the southeastern city of Cárdenas, a crowd of government supporters gathered outside the church and waited for the members to come out. However, the Ladies were able to elude the mob and return to their homes unharmed.
          “These recent events remind us that the campaign of harassment, persecution, hostility, and threats against the Ladies in White is an ongoing pattern of militant behavior sponsored and directed by the Casto regime,” said HRF president Thor Halvorssen. “These brave women face persecution, attacks, and arrests every Sunday during their peaceful protest. Their deplorable treatment at the hands of the government and its supporters underscores the fact that the story of ‘reform’ peddled by the Cuban government is fiction circulated by the Castro brothers.”

          The HRF is nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a special focus on the Americas. Check out their website: they do good – and important – work.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


For a delightful, if leisurely-paced, time check out “Quartet” from director (yes, director) Dustin Hoffman. The 2012 film stars Maggie Smith (I’ll watch anything with Maggie Smith in it) along with other British stalwarts Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Michael Gambon. The plot, to borrow from the Rotten Tomatoes website, is as follows:

“Beecham House is abuzz. The rumor circling the halls is that the home for retired musicians is soon to play host to a new resident. Word is, it's a star. For Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), Wilfred Bond (Billy Connolly) and Cecily Robson (Pauline Collins) this sort of talk is par for the course at the gossipy home. But they're in for a special shock when the new arrival turns out to be none other than their former singing partner, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith). Her subsequent career as a star soloist, and the ego that accompanied it, split up their long friendship and ended her marriage to Reggie, who takes the news of her arrival particularly hard. Can the passage of time heal old wounds? And will the famous quartet be able to patch up their differences in time for Beecham House's gala concert?”

The answers to these and other pressing questions are probably not in doubt, but there is definitely satisfaction in watching seasoned pros do their utmost with the material. Given the range of talent, it’s a safe bet that the performances would have been sublime in any case, but since the director is Dustin Hoffman I suspect he worked as an actor with other actors to elicit just a little more. (In fact, given his reputation as a perfectionist, it must have been interesting to see if he really worked his cast or just gave them free reign. Probably a little of both.) (It’s definitely some kind of an acting lesson just watching Maggie Smith, as the retired diva, sitting in her armchair at dusk, listening to her old recordings, reminiscing and possibly regretting. No words, no movement, just a brilliant actor simply being.)

Of course, I think everything sounds just a little better with a British accent, including the surprising – if justified – use of the f-bomb. I’m just saying…

For classical music (especially opera) buffs, there's a fair amount of music to be enjoyed, performed by real-life retired musicians and singers, all of whom are acknowledged at the end of the film. It's a touching tribute and a reminder that life doesn't have to end at retirement: the movie is as much about aging and growing old with spirit and dignity as anything else. As one character is fond of quoting (thanks to Bette Davis) "Old age isn't for sissies".

In any event, it’s a delightful little gem of a picture that’s definitely worth a look. Buy some scones, brew some tea and curl up with a cast of pros in “Quartet”.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

I Just Don't Get It

Earlier today I had a really good cupcake. I mean, it was the real deal: dense, moist yellow cake topped with a big swirl of the most sinfully good cream cheese frosting I’ve had in… maybe forever. It was offered to me on a tray full of other cupcakes, several of them of the red velvet variety. Now I have nothing against red velvet cake: it’s cake with red food coloring, right? Or is there some magical ingredient I’m unaware of that imparts a unique flavor/consistency/aura? I hear beet juice is often used as a colorant, which I guess would give it a certain taste. In any case, I’ve had red velvet cake. It was okay. But I don’t get the mania. I liked my cupcake better. In any case, it got me to thinking of some of the other things I just don’t get. Such as:

1.       TV “seasons”: Time was, youngsters, when there were three TV networks. The networks produced TV series which started somewhere around September and ran most of the year. During the summer there were reruns, from which we get the term “summer reruns”, not much in use anymore. With the advent of 1,096 cable channels came the age of what seems like hundreds of TV series. “Mad Men”, “Breaking Bad”, “Drop Dead Diva”, “Psych”, “Monk”, etc., etc. etc. And with all those series the whole concept of the “TV season” went pretty much out the window, except on the three still-existing networks, where the “season” seems to be getting shorter and shorter. Meanwhile, shows like “Burn Notice” and “Suits” trumpet their season premieres with a lot of fanfare and hype, and at any time of the year, or so it seems. And then, just when you’re all ready for a hefty “season” of your favorite show, comes the breathless announcement of the season finale. What the hell? Seems like five or six shows constitute a “season” now. Then it’s over and you have to wait a year and a half for the next five-installment “season”. And let me tell you, after waiting almost a year for the next installments of, for example, “Mad Men”, it doesn’t seem quite so special any more. Or maybe that’s just me. In any case, I don’t get it.

2.       Twitter: I understand from journalist friends that it’s a valuable tool for them, but for the vast, unwashed majority of us – I’m not convinced. Aren’t there enough social networks out there -- Facebook and  Pinterest and Formspring, e.g. --  to keep everyone, everywhere up-to-date on every little thing I may be thinking or doing, or thinking of doing every minute? Not to mention sites like Ning and Google+ and GovLoop and Hotlist and something called Frühstückstreff. (I’m not making it up.) Must I also tweet my life away in excruciating detail? Twitter: convince me.

3.       Finally, Kathy Lee Gifford: Forever perky, infamously impish and preternaturally youthful, Kathy Lee just won’t go away. She always seems to have a TV “gig” going: currently on “Today” with someone named Hoda Kotb, and for years and years with good old Regis Philbin. Hard-working and long-suffering after the revelation of her husband’s extra-marital affairs some years ago, she at one time somehow managed to keep her children out of the public eye, while simultaneously foisting them on us at every turn. A neat trick. Apparently blessed with the shelf life of SPAM, Kathy Lee can do it all. But I, for one, just don’t get it.

Monday, June 24, 2013


It's almost two weeks now since we had to put our beloved Kona to sleep. We had taken him to the vet since his breathing had become shallow and labored and he didn't seem to have the same energy he usually had: he had almost stopped greeting me at the door and he had long since stopped waking us up at 4:30 like a gray-furred alarm clock. So we thought, "We'll just have him looked at and get some meds or something, then take him home and go out to the diner." So much for the plans.

Congestive heart failure was the final diagnosis. The vet was very nice, but very matter-of-fact when she came to show us the x-rays. "It isn't good news," she said. It would have been possible -- just possible -- to keep him alive a while longer after who knows how many "extraordinary measures"... 

And so we made the decision.

When our previous cat, Mehitabel, passed I remember being surprised at how much I missed her. And she had really been Chris's cat for 20 years. But Kona was ours. We had driven him home from Hoboken, from the family who could no longer keep him because their little boy was allergic and they were expecting a new baby. We had watched and waited while he grew accustomed to the new surroundings and the new humans and were ecstatic when he finally started approaching us to be scratched or petted or to curl up in our laps to nap or watch TV with us.

I'm still not entirely used to being able to open the apartment door without having to worry that he'll dart out into the hall and down the stairs. I miss saying "Hey, you!" by way of greeting when I come home at the end of the day. I still get a little teary thinking about him. How close we become to these little critters -- more than pets, they become friends, confidantes. 

I suspect he's still with us somehow. Somewhere. But oh, how attached we become.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Goodbye, Tongue & Groove

Last night at approximately 8:15 p.m. I ended my almost seven year affiliation with Tongue & Groove, Philadelphia’s Spontaneous Theater troupe of actors/improvisers/all-around good people. Our work was not improv in the usual sense: fast, funny, wacky. Every scene was grounded in reality, whether funny or serious or sad, “better” as one of our reviews said, “than the best scripted plays.” We did four shows over the weekend at the Kimmel Center’s Innovation Studio, to what appeared to me to be packed houses. We were damn good, too, eliciting laughs and tears and myriad emotions in between from our audiences and even, I think it’s safe to say, from ourselves.

We collaborated with RealLivePeople(in)Motion, an improvisational dance troupe that worked with us seamlessly to add a new dimension of movement to our mostly verbal scenes. We also all made new friends of the dancers who were generous and talented and funny and real. By the last show it felt as though we’d been working with them for a whole year, not the weeks they actually spent with us practicing, working out the kinks.

It was a little emotional and I’m sure the reality of it will sink in slowly over time. I’ll now have my Thursdays free, rather than attending practice with the group. I won’t have the opportunity to do an emotional “check-in” with everyone, letting them know how I’m feeling, what’s going on and how it’s all affecting me. We got to know each other and became more than friends: supportive and caring and loving – when things were bad or we were down or feeling angry, “What can I do for you?” was not a rhetorical question. And of course we also shared the joys, the good times, the happiness… I’ll miss the hugs.

The group changed in the years I was with them: members dropped out and moved on (in one case getting a contract with the Food Network for his own show), new people joined and became as integral to our success as those who left. But they were all talented and brought their unique vision and perspective and energy to the group. We were never stagnant, never still, or so it seemed.

I’m a little misty as I write this. And I know I’ll see the Tongue & Groovers from time to time. We’ll be in touch. It’s not as if I’m moving halfway around the world or something. It’s just that Tongue & Groove really defined a very specific and special time in my life, an era, if you will, that’s coming to an end. I tend to hold to that saying about a door closing and a window opening. But what’s behind that door will always be special to me. I’m different – better? – for having been connected with you all. Blessed. Plus, I had a hell of a good time.

Thank you, T&G.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Nightmare in Boston

As the reports continue to come out of Boston about the aftermath of yesterday's horrific events, and the number of terrible injuries seems to climb by the hour, it's easy to want to tune out -- especially since virtually all the news is concerned with the bombings.And of course there's always the nagging worry that something comparable could happen anywhere else -- Philadelphia, for example, as I head to the train at the end of the day. And regardless who's responsible our hearts go out to the families of those who died and those who were so brutally injured.

Columnist, commentator and media critic Michael Medved put it about as well as anyone, I imagine, and I quote his comments in their entirety from his website.

“As I write these words, it’s still too early to know who perpetrated the bloody attacks on the Boston Marathon, or even to guess at the motivations. Nevertheless, the two explosions undeniably represent a premeditated act that deserves classification as unspeakably evil. No ‘higher cause’ can conceivably justify the shattered lives and severed limbs. The Boston Bombings remind us that brutality remains a constant presence in our world, and that cruelty should discredit relativists who blur distinctions between good and evil, civilization and barbarity.

“We must also recall that those who defend us against random violence – soldiers, police officers, first responders, doctors and nurses – toil on the side of decency, regardless of politics. We must recognize their efforts and respond decisively against the warped mentality of terrorists who make pain and destruction their primary focus.”