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Tuesday, December 05, 2017

The Cursive Curse

IT WAS A BIRTHDAY GREETING for my wife, many years ago. A gift, lavishly wrapped (for me, the introduction of scotch tape into the wrapping process makes it lavish), with a handwritten letter detailing my adoration. “I love the present!” she cried, tearing the paper off the whatever-it-was. “And a letter!” She peered hopefully at the page, then lowered it. “But I can’t read it.”

The author with his Smith-Corona, c. 1975
Not many can make sense of my scrawl, which isn’t surprising: I never learned to write. In other respects, I was a precocious little bastard, a fluent enough reader by kindergarten that I was invited to read to the other kids at the end of the day while the teacher cleaned up. In first grade, when we were split into learning-to-read groups, I was given one of them to instruct. Needless to say, my classmates despised me.

We are speaking of a time in the dim, pre-computer past, when a number-two pencil was a needed companion and the taking of classroom notes required not only a written approximation of the teacher’s talk but also a sequence of margin-busting doodles, visiting ever-greater horrors upon the cruelly rendered teacher as that talk droned on and on.

During the opening weeks of second grade, it was decided to skip me to third. Friendless as I was, I hoped for a fresh chance with these fresh faces – but I was an interloper. In the long run, I was ruined both socially and academically, and it started with penmanship.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Yates of Heaven

From the Food Vault Dept.: Thirty years ago I decided to pack it in as a restaurant reviewer. I’d done it for two years and the grind had worn me down. I took a two-year respite and was begged to resume – which I would do for another quarter-century. That’s a lot of pasta. Here’s my penultimate piece before that break, visiting an eatery that won a great reputation, closed after a couple of years, re-opened briefly as The Pasta Factory, and then gave way to an intermittent succession of bars, more suited to the neighborhood. As sometimes happened in my reviews, I tried a different approach, the intended whimsy of which now seems to me pretentious.


COME ALONG AND BE MY DATE for dinner: we’re going to Yates Street in Albany, a restaurant that has as its name its own address, and I’d like you to take a look at what makes this place so special.

Its location, on an out-of-the-way but attractive street, reminds you of the little gems of restaurants tucked away on the side streets of New York, London, Montreal. But it isn’t on a street of restaurants: there’s a laundromat nearby, and the inevitable Price Chopper.

Inside you’ll see first of all the old, long bar, a big mahogany affair installed around the turn of the century by a local brewery. Beyond it, the dining room, its walls lined with dark wainscotting that meets, halfway up, the cream-colored tin that also covers the ceiling.

There’s the look of an old saloon about it: appropriate to a place that once served the men who ruled Albany. About four years ago the building was bought by partners Linda Leyden-Bernal and Ken Linden, who turned it into a top-notch restaurant – something Albany always canuse – that, despite favorable reviews from as far away as Manhattan, still could attract a few more clients.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Love Is in the Air

WHAT’S MOST ENDEARING about the story that gives us “She Loves Me” is its improbability. We need to see two lonely people despise one another even as they pine for an idealized version that the other represents through correspondence. It’s a musical with a Christmas theme, and as holiday entertainment, it’s more probable than seeing a succession of ghosts show up – and less overdone.

Marc de la Concha, Julia Burrows, Michael McCorry Rose,
and David Girard in theREP's "She Loves Me."

As theRep’s December offering, it couldn’t be better – as a choice and as a production. It’s old enough to be fresh, and timeless enough to be up-to-the-minute.

It’s a ‘30s story (a play, in fact) that became a ‘60s musical – although it also spawned three motion pictures. It fell naturally into the hands of director Ernst Lubitsch, a German refugee, whose 1940 film “The Shop around the Corner” took the wistfulness of Miklós László’s play into the unique Lubitsch world of romantic longing and sexual sophistication.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Come, They Told Me

THANKSGIVING SEEMS MORE AND MORE subsumed into the Christmas frenzy, if the displays of lights in my neighborhood are any sign. Not all waited until Friday to flip the switch, although the blow-up Santas didn’t start billowing until this week.

Artie Shaw
Visually startling though some of these buildings and lawns may be, they don’t provoke anything approaching the trauma that hits me when the Christmas Muzak comes to town. It used to ease into our ears, with one such song only once in a while as December began. Thirty-some years ago I worked for an AM daytimer, a low-watt radio station that played big bands and jazz, and the general manager gave me a formula for slipstreaming in the holiday juice: “First week of the month, one song out of every four. Second week: double that. Don’t make it all Christmas music till a week before.”

Would that were still the case. From gas station to coffee shop to shopping mall, we’ll be hearing the angels on high non-stop from now. Perhaps this has helped fuel my Christmas retreat, as my wife and I haven’t bought (or stolen) a tree these past couple of years, and we celebrated last Christmas in the Jewish style, with dinner at a Chinese restaurant, which we plan to do again in a scant few weeks.

Let me harken (or herald) some previous thoughts on the matter: There’s this piece, a fuller look at my relationship with the end-of-year music, and this piece, in which I found more to gripe on pretty much the same topic. You’re welcome to listen to whatever you wish, but I prefer to exercise choice and attention. Which probably means I’ll be spending the holiday with the likes of Artie Shaw.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Delhi Meet

SOMETHING (FOR US) COMPLETELY DIFFERENT was the watch cry as this year's Thanksgiving planning commenced, and somebody (my daughter, I'm sure) came up with the idea of Indian fare -- a few of the classic Punjabi dishes we know from Indian restaurants. We turned some late-season tomatoes into a terrific chutney, and we were off. I found seasonings like asafoetida and fenugreek leaves in local Indian-food stores, and soon we were wringing panir out of curdled milk and coloring basmati rice for the right biryani look. The only item I purchased were the papdum. Thanks to a recent acquisition of chafing dishes, we presented it as a buffet, breaking the theme only for dessert. Menu below. And here are links to 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and all the menus before then.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Among Your Souvenirs

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: Some of us simply worship Florence Foster Jenkins, and have done so since long before the movie came along – and even before Stephen Temperley’s play hit Broadway. It was a relief, when seeing it there, to note that her legend was well respected, and I was delighted to see the same degree of respect in the production that played earlier this year in Catskill and Fort Salem, two small New York towns where theater is a luxury.


Perhaps it was a more genteel time back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The salon audiences for whom Florence Foster Jenkins performed stifled their laughter and applauded their support. They were a patrician bunch. Cole Porter never missed her Ritz ballroom concerts.

Jay Kerr and Alison Davy | Photo by John Sowle
The consensus is that Mme. Jenkins was wildly deluded, her lack of musical awareness probably aggravated by the syphilis she contracted as a teen. Thanks to a comfortable inheritance, she became a society dowager and indulged her passion for music with a voice so dreadful that those who heard her live swore that the handful of recordings she left behind barely do justice to the awfulness of the experience.

Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir” is subtitled “A Fantasia,” and the playwright uses the facts of the woman’s life to imagine what might have driven her to inflict her unique performing style upon her friends – and, eventually, to a gloriously sold-out night at Carnegie Hall.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Floor It! The New 56K Modems

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Strictly for those who enjoy the intersection of technology and nostalgia, here’s my comprehensive look at the then-blazing 56K modem technology. It ran on CNet’s site in 1997, complete with appropriate graphics – none of which I retained. So it’s all the drier in the form below.


THEY KEPT TELLING US it couldn’t get faster. Each time, something faster happened. For several years, modem speeds regularly doubled. When we reached 28.8 kilobits per second, however, we were told that was it. Nevertheless, a year ago the rate crept up to 33.6K (but just try to find many ISPs at that speed). And once again we were told that was it: analog phone lines had hit their limit. The only thing faster is digital, but ISDN lines are expensive and hard to get.

Now, suddenly, we have 56.6K modems. For ease of marketing, they’re referred to as 56K modems, although U.S. Robotics, a company with massive modem market share, terms its brand X2, while Rockwell, the firm that makes the modem chipsets for the majority of other modem companies, calls theirs K56flex. Thanks to these modems, Web pages are now flying onto screens at breathtaking speed – over plain old phone lines. But the two implementations of 56K technology, while based on similar principles, are incompatible. And it’s likely that the standard eventually ratified by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) won’t be exactly one or the other. In its long history of ratifying transmission standards, the ITU has never simply adopted a single company’s proposal, so it’s not expected to happen this time – this time being around mid-1998.