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Friday, May 31, 2013

Go Ahead and Usenet

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Once again from way back when, here’s my 17-year-old attempt to explain the Usenet phenomenon for readers of the amazingly puerile and deservedly short-lived magazine Yahoo! Internet Life. Although I tried to give the piece a fairly upbeat, easy-to-read (meaning: no hard words!) feel, some witless editor dumbed it down even further. Here’s my original piece. So much has changed since its publication that I’m not going to attempt to update it, but it’s well worth investigating for the richness of resources it offers, including binary files.


WANT TO TALK ABOUT David Letterman? You could visit his home page, but there’s no opportunity there for fan feedback. Over in the Internet’s Usenet newsgroups, however, there’s a group called, and it exists solely for the purpose of trading stories about your favorite TV host.

Usenet is an Internet realm dedicated to exchanging messages. Order is imposed by a hierarchical structure in which specific groups are named by discussion topic, and by the efforts of the Usenet community to ensure that messages from rambunctious individuals don’t get out of hand or stray too far off-topic within a given group.

Assuming your interests aren’t too outré, there are Usenet newsgroups devoted to them. And you can find plenty of wacky ones out there, too. Want to keep up with Jeeves and Bertie Wooster? Go to Getting married soon? Do some research in Do you fear nothing? Try alt.acme.exploding.newsgroup.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Music Unleashed

From the Concert Vault Dept.: The Albany Symphony Orchestra’s 2013 American Music Festival takes place this weekend, and its centerpiece is the performance at 7:30 PM Friday, May 31, of the orchestra’s small ensemble, the Dogs of Desire. The program includes cutting-edge works by Robert Paterson and Jay Craven, Amanda Harberg and Micah Fink, Jacob Cooper, Roshanne Etezady, Todd Levin, David Mallamud, and Ken Eberhard, and takes place at EMPAC, the wonderful experimental theater complex in Troy. Here’s my review of one of the ensemble’s earlier concerts.


PLACING THIS SMALL-GROUP UNIT of the Albany Symphony in Troy’s Revolution Hall underscored the ensemble’s mission, which is to bring contemporary classical music beyond its usual rarefied venues. It’s a worthy idea, even if it seems mostly to attract the current (and, I suspect, consistent) Dogs of Desire audience. The players are among the best the orchestra has to offer, and conductor David Alan Miller has an obvious affinity for the new, exuberant music that this ensemble commissions and premieres.

The Dogs of Desire | Photo by Gary Gold
This year’s farrago, like last year’s, comprised eight works, most of them balancing the dense orchestral voice too often used to distinguish “classical” music from its more easygoing brethren with a fresher, rock-inspired sound.

Dana Wilson’s “Song of Desire” showed how these tools can be most effectively used. Adding the talents of two singers, Heather Gardner and Alexandra Sweeton, to add twin lines of wordless vocalese, he began with what could have been a leftover Ketelby melody and wove it into a compelling realization of the emotion in question by a deft series of contrasts, from solo lines on violin and cello to a more full-out brass declamation.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Phoenix of Paradise

From the Vault Dept.: Yesterday’s post told a story that took place during a trip to Lake Placid to write about the Mirror Lake Inn. It remains an outstanding resort, still under the same ownership as described below. The formal dining room now is called The View, and Carl Gronlund, who was chef in 1992, is now the hotel’s general manager.


BACK IN THE 1950s, a series of murals was painted on the walls of the Mirror Lake Inn by Averil Courtney Conwell, an artist who settled in Lake Placid and celebrated the village with these portraits of turn-of-the-century life. Most of the paintings were rescued from a 1988 fire that destroyed the main building of the Inn (some had to be chainsawed from the walls), and the then-94-year-old Conwell took on the task of restoring her work.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Not only did she compensate for water damage; she also took the opportunity to add new colors and a new youthfulness to her paintings. When the Inn reopened six months after the fire, the murals were framed and hung in the new dining room, which also was named after the artist.

That sense of a new approach has characterized many aspects of the Inn since the fire. Devastating as it was, the event allowed the owners to come up with an even better facility without sacrificing the hundred-year-old elegance of the place.

It goes without saying that when you feel comfortable in a dining room, the meal is all the more enjoyable. A resort like the Mirror Lake Inn, which stands with wonderful dignity at one end of the tourist-thronged village, needs to extend that comfort to all aspects of the place: rooms, grounds, activity areas. This is done to a large extent by keeping the staff happy. Thanks to the management style of owners Ed and Lisa Weibrecht, there's an infectious sense of peace.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Gypsy Andante

MY DAUGHTER HAS an introspective streak that leads her to unexpected bouts of philosophizing. “Why,” she asked recently, “am I here? I mean, what is my purpose for being on Earth?”

“I can’t answer the second question,” I told her, “but I certainly know about the first.”

“Is this going to be one of your long explanations? Because I – ”

“Sit down,” I suggested. “It’s high time somebody told you about this.”

It was in July 1992 (I told her), long before you were born, when your mother and I took one of our trips to Lake Placid. You’ve been there, you know what a charming place it is. In the course of writing about travel and restaurants, I’ve been able to try several wonderful hostelries there, and for a while Susan and I were paying annual visits. This despite the fact that the tourists in that town tend to be far too fit, so that I end up being the fattest person on the sidewalk.

Our destination this particular weekend was the Mirror Lake Inn, which was giving us dinner and an overnight for a piece I’d write the following week.

Monday, May 27, 2013

As Kubálek Would Have It

From the Vault Dept.: A springtime concert report from 23 years ago, when Antonin Kubálek gave a solo recital in Troy. He made several recordings for the Dorian label, which was based in that city, and during a break from one of them told me that Glenn Gould had produced an earlier Kubálek recording of a Korngold sonata – the only time Gould produced for somebody else. “He asked me to play the piece through three times,” said Kubálek. “A few weeks later, he played back the result, which sounded to me like it could have been any one of the takes I did. ‘No, no,’ said Glenn. ‘I used all three. I made 187 edits.’”


THE ST. CECILIA ORCHESTRA side-stepped into the role of concert presenter Thursday evening with a solo recital by pianist Antonin Kubálek, an artist who (not too coincidentally) will be performing a concerto by Martinu with the orchestra next season.

Antonin Kubálek
Kubálek's recital, held in the Rensselaer County Council for the Arts gallery in Troy, was a concise program comprising three works.

And from the first chords of Brahms’s Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, he made it clear that the small size of the hall and the mushy tone of the piano would be no deterrents to a big interpretation.

It’s a big piece that enjoys having the daylights whumped out of it, and Kubálek is a two-fisted player. An imposing series of big chords starts it off, contrasting with a more sonorous middle section. Kubálek established contrasts among the various sections with more drama than is often given to the music, which was very much to the music’s benefit.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Fantastic Lollypops

Guest Blogger Dept.: Before he wrote “The Front Page,” before he began a distinguished career as a Hollywood scriptwriter, Ben Hecht was a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, for which he covered the final dress rehearsal of the new, notorious opera by Serge Prokofiev. At the time, the company was run by the imperious soprano Mary Garden. “The Love for Three Oranges” opened to generally unfavorable reviews: as Hecht predicted, the critics made little effort to enjoy what’s now a repertory staple.


THEY WILL NEVER START. No, they will never start. In another two minutes Mr. Prokofiev will go mad. They should have started at eleven. It is now ten minutes after eleven. And they have not yet started. Ah, Mr. Prokofiev has gone mad.

Fata Morgana: Costume
design by Boris Anisfeld
But Mr. Prokofiev is a modernist; so nobody pays much attention. Musicians are all mad. And a modernist musician, du lieber Gott! A Russian modernist musician!

The medieval face of Mr. Boris Anisfeld pops over the rows of empty seats. It is very likely that Mr. Anisfeld will also go mad. For Mr. Anisfeld is, in a way, a collaborator of Mr. Prokofiev. It is the full dress rehearsal of “The Love for Three Oranges.”  Mr. Prokofiev wrote the words and music. Mr. Anisfeld painted the scenery.

“Mees Garden weel be hear in a meenute,” the medieval face of Boris whispers into the Muscovite ears of Serge.

Eleven-fifteen, and Miss Garden has arrived. She is armed, having brought along her heaviest shillalah. Mr Prokofiev is on his feet. He takes off his coat. The medieval face of Mr. Anisfeld vanishes. Tap, tap, on the conductor’s stand. Lights out. A fanfare from the orchestra’s right.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Liking Linux

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Following my years writing for a number of big-circulation computer magazines, I offered tech columns to Metroland for a while. Here’s one of them, and it’s too-techie nature demonstrates why the columns ceased. Red Hat stopped developing the Linux versions I wrote about in 2004, now offering an enterprise edition that’s a much different animal.


IT’S A MORE STABLE operating system than Windows, and for many its appeal is also its ease of customization. Then there are those who simply don’t want to make Microsoft – and Bill Gates – any wealthier. Which is why an operating system called Linux is exploding in popularity.

Derived from UNIX, an OS that predates Microsoft’s DOS (and which forms the foundation of the Internet, Linux (pronounced LINN-uks) was written by University of Helsinki student Linus Torvalds, who released his program to the world in 1991. The world, in the form of programming-savvy users, responded enthusiastically. The source code is freely distributed, and has been enhanced and improved over the years, with Torvalds still overseeing its integrity from his home in California.

Is it a viable alternative to DOS and Windows? I looked at the latest offering from Red Hat Software (Linux version 6), which sports a streamlined installation process and an improved graphical (meaning Windows-like) interface that simplifies its use. Its much-vaunted stability was certainly in evidence, although I hardly pushed it to its limits. Its cost – free – is appealing. It’s pretty light on applications – you won’t find a big-time spreadsheet, and the only major word processing program is from WordPerfect. And installation, despite many improvements, requires a better-than-amateur knowledge of computers.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Olympic Heights

From the Kitchen Dept.: This week’s Metroland features my review of an Albany diner that transcends the genre. It got me thinking about diners I’ve written about in the past. Here’s one of my earliest reviews, written back when the magazine had no budget for meals and we announced our visits. The Olympic has since gone through a tumultuous history of closing and opening again. Jerry Menagias is now part-owner of Schenectady’s Blue Ribbon Diner.


A BLACKBOARD BY THE inner door lists a wide range of dinner specials with a continental touch characterizing them. Not what you expect in a 24-hour diner. The Olympic is located just off Schenectady’s 1-890, Michigan Avenue exit. Recently remodeled, it has a facade of attractive wood paneling. In other words, it is not your typical dineraunt.

Photo by Drew Kinum. Apologies for its
over-photocopied distress.
The dinner specials are a good indication why.

Partners Jerry Menagias and Bob Gerolyrnatos have been operating the diner for three years, resisting the short-lived food fads that have come and gone. The three-page menu is a solid selection of breakfast, lunch, and dinner items, with a back page of children’s portions and desserts. Even unfolded, the menu is no larger than a place setting – not like the massive diner menu that keeps unfolding until you’re leaning it against the back of your neighbor’s head.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


From the Classical Vault Dept.: Here’s a piece I wrote for the Schenectady Gazette, one of a series I came up with to prove my worthiness for a column in that newspaper’s pages. The column never happened, so here is this essay’s first appearance.


IT HAPPENS AT ALMOST EVERY high-powered classical concert I attend. The music heads for its finale, the tension mounts at the coda, the last note is sounded – and someone in the audience has that “Bravo!” out so fast it even frightens the musicians.

This isn't a gesture born of enthusiasm. It's snobbery.

My favorite bravo-shouting display occurs when an unfamiliar work is played, so the shouter has a chance to say, “I know when the piece is ended.”

Also implicit is the idea that the shouter somehow enjoyed a richer experience than you or I, so lofty is this person's cultural level.

I know the truth, and I'm going to share it with you. Because I'm a reformed bravo shouter. It begins with too much free time in high school. And not nearly enough dates. Had I been able to date regularly during those four years, I guarantee that I wouldn't be able to whistle the themes from every movement of the Beethoven symphonies. It's a feat that has won me no money, no fame, not the slightest approbation from family and friends.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Master Builder

INTENSIFY THE SCRUTINY of the sexual undertones that inform Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” and you further complicate an already complicated story. What at first seems a hyper (for its time) realistic, soap-operatic tale soon reveals mythic undercurrents, all of it rolling together in the unexpected entrance of a young woman who will conclusively change the Master Builder’s life. The story moves slowly and is shot through with gloom, to the point where even its more ecstatic moments convey a sense of peril. It’s not a crowd-pleaser. It’s not often performed. It’s a risky endeavor. In other words, it’s perfect for BAM.

Wrenn Schmidt, Max Gordon Moore, and
John Turturro. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s production reunites John Turturro with director Andrei Belgrader, whose Endgame in 2008 won acclaim, but who go back to Turturro’s years as a student of Belgrader at Yale. Keeping it further in the family, the play co-stars Katherine Borowitz (Turturro’s wife) as Turturro’s wife.

You know Turturro from any of a number of antic, unpredictable characters in films by the Coen brothers and Spike Lee. As Halvard Solness, Ibsen’s title character, he brings careful complexity to the role. He needs to have a commanding presence, but Turturro’s Solness is a man not easily able to control his choices. We see this in the beginning, in his conversation with Knut Brovik (Julian Gamble), whose career Solness eclipsed to the point where Brovik now is in his employ; we see it in his response to the adoration firehosed upon him by Kaja (Kelly Hutchinson), his secretary, whose is engaged to marry Brovik’s son, Ragnar (Max Gordon Moore), also in Solness’s employ.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Diner’s Rights

From the Vault Dept.: This piece goes back 17 years but, like so much well-considered wisdom, really hasn’t dated. It’s from Metroland.


HERE’S AN AWFUL TALE: a friend recently visited an area restaurant for a sushi dinner, and noticed a cockroach ambling across the wall. Then another. Then a couple more. She complained to a server, who offered no solution; the manager eventually took ten percent off the bill. And he saw one of the bugs she was complaining about. Was she owed more than a slight discount?

There’s a huge gray area defining your rights in a restaurant. Obviously, you’re paying for more than just food. Because the experience still rankled my friend, I recommended that she call the county health department – it’s in the blue pages of the phone book, and (if it’s a big county) you should dial the environmental health division. If it’s a small county, a state district office will manage the inspections. Your complaint will be investigated.

Any restaurant owes you a clean dining facility. From my own back-of-the-house experience, I know the effort it takes to keep your kitchen and storage facilities clean and bug-free, and as a diner I keep a one bug limit. A single roach I report to the management. More than that, and I’m out of there. But I’m being generous. According to the Albany County Health Department, you shouldn’t see even one roach.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Around the World in 80 Days

BY THE TIME JIMMY RAY BENNETT breaks into a tapdance to a tune reminiscent of “Anything Goes,” it makes magnificent sense and gently tops everything that’s come before. Bennett is portraying something like his seventeenth character – a stevedore on board the steamboat taking Phileas Fogg to Liverpool – in a madcap “Around the World in 80 Days” at the newly restored New Theater at 45th Street that will be the closest you’ll come to seeing the Marx Brothers on stage in your lifetime.

Jimmy Ray Bennett, Stephen Guarino, John Gregorio,
Emily McNamara, and Bryce Ryness.
Photo by Michael Blase.
Jules Verne’s classic tale has been filmed and staged and staged again. This version, by Mark Brown, distributes 39 characters among five actors, one of whom – Bryce Ryness – portrays only Fogg throughout. Ryness has a high-cheekboned, matinee-idol face that he keeps at an exquisite deadpan as the enigmatic Fogg pursues his journey. But look carefully: we see the flushes of love, the flashes of panic, and, in an ensemble of big, busy faces, he holds his own with amusing grace. Forget David Niven. This is the Fogg Verne must have imagined.

Bennett and fellow cast members John Gregorio (Passepartout and others) and Stephen Guarino (Detective Fix and others) developed “The Nuclear Family,” an improv troupe, which explains the ease with which they face the chaos of bouncing around dialects and relationships, with flurries of costume changes to boot.

Gregorio seizes the best of the physical comedy (and there’s plenty) as he caprices around the stage in absurd Gallic trappings, mangling his English, achieving impossible acrobatics, and giving a sensational bug-eyed leer (hail, décolletage!) when the opportunity presents itself. This is a story with little character nuance, yet it’s satisfying to see how the devotion of Passepartout softens the imperious Fogg.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Tuesday in the PAC with Sondheim

Finishing the Hat Dept.: Here’s a longer version of the piece running in this week’s Metroland, along with the photo I took of the event.


TO EMPHASIZE THE RANGE of characters for which Stephen Sondheim has written songs, interviewer Mary Darcy pointed out that the range includes John Wilkes Booth and Little Red Riding Hood. “Yes,” said Sondheim, “but they’re both killers.” And he brought down the house.

Stephen Sondheim and Mary Darcy
at HVCC, Troy, NY | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
With musicals like “Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “A Little Night Music” and “Company” to his credit – not to mention lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” – Sondheim is easily Broadway’s most renowned and accomplished songwriter.

But the best illustration during the interview of the power and magic of live theater was Sondheim’s skill at working an audience. He told stories you can read in his two volumes of collected lyrics or watch him recount on YouTube videos, but in person he gave a nuanced performance well-targeted for the full house of theater enthusiasts. And he knows how to get a laugh.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Daddy-O of the Patio

From the Grill Dept.: Ten years ago I offered some outdoor cooking advice. Except for the effloresence of smokers in my backyard, not much has changed. Here's my piece from a decade-old Metroland. Stop by for a burger some time.


WITH MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND looming, I’m already lugging patio furniture out to where the patio would be if we had such a thing. By autumn’s arrival, this patch of grass will be scuffed and threadbare and singed by depth charges of glowing charcoal, but it recovers.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Which is more than I can say for myself after I’ve supervised one of those weekend parties in which I turn into a one-man burger-flipping assembly line. It’s great to be surrounded by both friends and nature, but the kinds of menus I’ve come up with in the past have made it impossible to spend quality time with either.

Last year, however, I realized that all the extra effort was winning me no points and wasting much time, so I simplified. It’s still work, but I’ve spread it out and pared down the menus.

According to an informal canvas of some workmates, burgers are still the monarch of the summer grill, and are colored with much opinion. I’ve gone through phases of working the meat with various additives, and have lately decided that not much besides salt and pepper is really needed. But I prefer burgers to remain a reasonable size so there’s room for slices of tomato and onion.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Just out of Reach

Centennial Awareness Dept.: Composer Jerome Moross was born in 1913. As his daughter, Susanna, writes, he “is probably best known for the film score for the movie The Big Country, starring Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston. He received an Oscar nomination for Best Film Score and his reputation became celebrated within the film industry. However, his music goes far beyond film – from orchestral, chamber music, ballet, and opera, to Broadway and the Great American Songbook.” She runs a website devoted to his music, which is well worth visiting, especially as anniversary performances and activities continue throughout the year. Several years ago, the Bard Music Festival presented a concert performance of Moross’s Broadway show The Golden Apple, which proved unexpectedly disappointing. Here’s the report I filed.


AS WITH ULYSSES HIMSELF, fate dealt an unexpected blow to “The Golden Apple” when the hugely successful 1954 off-Broadway show moved to Broadway: it lasted for 125 performances, far fewer than its original notices seemed to promise. And it entered theatrical history as one of those question-mark musicals: a show that, in retrospect, may have been too good for its own good, offending the gods of ticket sales with its artistic hubris.

Jerome Moross in 1977
Certainly nothing like it had been seen in that context before. It’s through-composed, like an opera, but the songs themselves pay tribute to musical theater traditions, from vaudeville (there’s a wonderful pastiche of “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean”) to heartrending ballad. The book transplants stories from the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” to rural Washington State in the early 1900s, with Ulysses and his men just back from the Spanish-American War (they sing a tribute to Teddy Roosevelt) and all the men vying for the attention of Helen, the village flirt.

Book and lyrics were by John Latouche, a virtuoso wordsmith who’d previously worked with Vernon Duke and Duke Ellington when he teamed with composer Jerome Moross. By 1954, Moross had written a symphony and several ballets (include the notorious “Frankie and Johnny”) and was beginning to write music for movies; his best-known movie score would be “The Big Country” (1958).

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Reaching for the Summit

Travel and Leisure Dept.: Early in 1990 I made plans to spend a week in Minneapolis to perform in a show that got canceled right before my departure. I went anyway and stayed with friends who provided an excellent welcome to a fascinating area. Among our activities was a visit to Summit Brewing Company, and I managed to get a story out of it, which ran in the Schenectady Gazette.


MARK STUTRUD ENJOYS THE IRONY of his career transition in a wry, quiet way. The former substance abuse counselor is now the president – and head brewer – of the Summit Brewing Company, a small-volume manufacturer of quality ale and porter.

Mark Stutrud
His average output of 6,000 barrels per year accounts for 4/100ths of one percent of the amount of beer consumed in Minnesota. So he’s not looking to grab any appreciable amount of the market share any too soon. “I tell my salespeople that even a volume increase of a hundred percent is still only one or two drops in the big beer bucket,” he says.

As founder of the boutique brewery, Stutrud has a hand in all operations. He likes it that way, even when it requires him to operate his office out of packing boxes as was true last week. “We’re moving things around,” he says in the tone of someone who’s been moving things around a lot lately. “We’re putting in a tap room and a small meeting area.”

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Happy Marriage: A Ballad

Guest Blogger Dept.: An early poem by P.G. Wodehouse. Here’s P.G.W.’s introduction to the piece: A sensation has been caused in Portland, Oregon, by the arrest of two ladies and their husbands for highway robbery. Evidence was brought to show that the ladies used to stand beside their husbands while the robberies were being committed, and help to rifle the victims.


When Emerson K. Washington met Sadie Q. Van Pott,
Her numerous attractions bowled him over on the spot:
At first distinctly timid, gaining courage by degrees,
He rushed into her presence, and addressed her, on his knees:

Asalto al coche by Francisco de Goya
“Oh, Sadie Q., I worship you, and not as
    other men;
My love had proved a worthy theme for
    Poet Shakespeare's pen;
My groans and sighs excite surprise, whene’er
    I pace the street;
I really cannot sleep at all. And, worse,
    I cannot eat.

“For ham and eggs (Virginia style) I’ve ceased to
    care a jot;
No strawberry shortcake tempts me now, nor
    Boston beans, served hot.
The oyster-stew I wave aside: I cannot touch
    a clam:
From these remarks you’ll judge in what a
    wretched state I am.

“So do decide to be my bride; oh, heed a lover’s prayers;
Admit some sunshine to a lot, which now is dark with cares.
But lest without reflection you are tempted to decline,
I’ll picture what will happen should we form the said combine.

Sunday, May 12, 2013


Stage to Screen Dept.: Ten years ago, two notable filmed-play projects made their DVD debuts. Both remain in print as of today, with what originally were three volumes of the American Film Theater collection now combined in a single 14-disc set.


MOST GOOD PLAYS make lousy movies. The problem is inherent in the form: Plays rely on tension between actors and the stage confines as well as tension between actors and audience. While the set, lighting and costumes can contribute substantially to the show, we in the audience are voyeurs at a keyhole witnessing confrontations among characters portrayed for us in real time and in a real space.

Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy
Waiting for Godot
Look in on the denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon in O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” and you witness a perfect realization of theater at its most powerful as dreams and delusions are aired and exploded. And no playwright and expanded this concept more creatively than Samuel Beckett, whose “Waiting for Godot,” first staged in 1953, completely changed the nature of theater, abstracting the setting, the dialogue, even the purpose of a play.

Neither of these shows should work on film, although they’ve attracted their share of cameras. Both have been stunningly realized in films recently released on DVD, each in a series that triumphs in the impossible job of transferring plays to film.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Friday, May 10, 2013

Double Trouble

I UNDERSTOOD THE APPEAL of glue-’em-together plastic models only after I learned how to make explosives. The time required to paint each damn part and then adhere them properly seemed endless and I had no idea when I was young that I was supposed to be sniffing the glue in order to dull the pain.

Also, I had no affinity for cars. My neighbor Joey was deeply into hot rods and collected magazines and other paraphernalia featuring the artwork of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. Thus he also labored over Revell models of “Big Daddy”-designed vehicles, never complete until the toothy, pop-eyed visage of Rat Fink peered from the hood.

How I learned to make gunpowder I no longer remember. It seems as if the formula was chanted as a mantra: “saltpeter-sulphur-charcoal,” obtainable in any quantity only by scraping open hundereds of caps or lucking into firecrackers. Older kids passed along the information that neither toy store manager nor druggist would sell saltpeter (potassium nitrate) to minors, so I launched a campaign of befriending the guy who ran the Toy Caboose. I was a serious scientist-in-the-making who needed to expand beyond the limits of my toy-store set. And I looked far older than my years. It wasn’t long before he sold me the grail.

As an analysis of a cherry bomb showed me, the trick was to contain the powder tightly enough to give the expanding air something to fight against. I conducted these experiments in the basement when the house was otherwise empty. Ours was the kind of neighborhood in which random explosions could sound without provoking police visits, a kind of suburban apathy that protects atrocious behavior.

I built my bombs into the holds of model ships, the short lives of which precluded the necessity of painting them. As soon as the glue was dry, I’d carry the latest vessel to a pond at the end of my street, light a long fuse and enjoy its maiden and final voyage, which ended in a plume of black smoke and sizzling plastic.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Outline It for Me

From the Tech Vault Dept.: What’s most amazing about this twelve-year-old piece is that all but one of the programs mentioned in it are still around (I’ve updated the links where necessary). Although there’s some rugged competition in the screenplay-writing category, I was so impressed with Movie Magic Screenwriter that I continue to use it, although chiefly for stage plays, for which I have customized a template. Outliners? Too much work for me.


I’VE GOT THIS TECH PIECE to write. I need to organize my thoughts. And I need a flash of inspiration to color it beyond the drab hues of computer geekishness.

The piece is about writing and specialized word-processing programs. It’s in two sections: a look at outliners and note-keepers, and a review of programs that offer more complicated formatting, such as what screenplays require.
1.    Outlining
    a.    Integrated
    b.    Stand-alone
2.    Note-keeping
3.    Etc.

[Keep active-voice excitement about these prosaic products.]
[Check definition of “prosaic.”]

How do you wring a story onto the page? Most writers develop a sense of the elements of a piece, possibly keeping notes as they write. Novelist P.G. Wodehouse fastened his pages-in-progress to the walls around him, noting what needed to be changed and, once the changes were made, moving the corrected page to a different height. Vladimir Nabokov worked with index cards, writing one sentence per card and rubber-banding the chapters into easy-to-edit clumps.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Meeting Dmitri

From the Classical Vault Dept.: This year’s Bard Summerscape Festival is centered around the music of Stravinsky, beginning with Bill T. Jones’s “Rite of Spring” July 6 and 7, four weekends of films in July and August on the theme Stravinsky's Legacy and Russian Émigré Cinema, and the two weekends devoted to Stravinsky and His World August 9-18, among many other programs. To help set the mood, here’s my review of some of the events that I witnessed during 2004’s Shostakovich celebration.


THIS ELEVEN-CONCERT FESTIVAL allowed for a greater range of music and opinion than usually is found when classical music is the subject, and thus we were able to contrast one of Shostakovich’s most appalling works with one of his most sublime.

Although sublime wouldn’t be the first adjective that springs to mind when discussing the music of this difficult, controversial composer. He’s difficult not in terms of accessibility – most of his music is fraught with tuneful hooks that will grab even the most casual listener – but in a historic/philosophical context, making peace with a composer who evidently submitted to the Stalin regime. Or did he?

The first panel discussion took on the subject of contested accounts of Shostakovich’s career, and the final orchestral concert, performed last Sunday, illustrated the contrast between Shostakovich the Stalin-pleaser and the personal voice of the composer.

“Song of the Forests” is a 1949 work for chorus and orchestra written to celebrate Stalin’s post-war reforestation project, and a more hilariously bombastic work is hard to imagine. (Yet they’re out there: check out a documentary titled “East Side Story,” about the Soviet film musical tradition, for jaw-dropping examples.)

Monday, May 06, 2013

Not an Obssession

OVERHEARD YESTERDAY on the Times Square Shuttle:

“It’s not like I love Gypsy so much, but I had to see it again. I love Patti LuPone, and she was fantastic in it!”

Boyd Gaines and Patti LuPone
Gypsy, 2008
“You didn’t go back there specifically to see it again.”

“No! I mean, I was in the neighborhood, so I stopped by the theater – ”

“Right. You never know – ”

“You never know who you’ll see there! And I was able to get a good deal on a ticket!”

“So you saw it again.”

“I wouldn’t have seen it again if it wasn’t so good!

“I mean, Patti LuPone.”

“It’s not an obsession!”

“It’s something you enjoyed.”

“So I ended up seeing it nine times.”

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Cinco di Maggio

From the Vault Dept.: Here’s a review of one of the most unusual restaurants I’ve visited, a place to which I returned many times while Mike Iacobucci was running it. After he sold it, it went downhill quickly, and is long gone, a distant memory for those unafraid to try such fare as Mike’s mustard-enhanced Scandinavian pizza.


I’LL ADMIT THAT I LAUGHED when I first saw the name of the place. “Pizza Adobe” suggests an uncomfortable clash of cultures, but Mike Iacobucci combines them on his menu and adds a few surprises besides.

Mike Iacobucci
His restaurant is on a pretty undistinguished stretch of Schenectady’s State Street, nestling amongst bars and auto parts and turn-of-the-century stick houses. You park wherever you can.

Inside it’s bright and cheerful. There’s a small counter for pizza pickup. Beside it, a service bar with a few stools (Mike’s serves wine and beer). You could eat a dinner here if you’ve come in alone and want to chat with the help.

Very often it’s Mike himself behind the counter assembling dinners or pizzas or simply holding forth. He’s an opinionated guy whether the subject be food or travel or politics – and he’s an enthusiastic civic booster. He’s a power behind the Colonial Festival coming up next week as well as the annual Tuesday in the Park event held each summer.

Friday, May 03, 2013

The Once and Future Pete

Happy Birthday Dept.: Pete Seeger turned 94 today. In a few days, he’ll be performing at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady. He seems ageless and tireless, and his push to get people singing has inspired, in my town, a monthly get-together at which a potluck supper is followed by a round-robin of playing and singing, with many of the songs somehow related to Seeger as singer and songwriter. The first album reviewed below, a two-CD Seeger tribute, was followed by two more, similar, releases.


Where Have All the Flowers Gone? The Songs of Pete Seeger
Appleseed Recordings
What’s That I Hear? The Songs of Phil Ochs
Sliced Bread Records

Pete Seeger | Photo by Frank Franklin/AP
The last track of disc two of the Seeger tribute features Pete himself, his voice reedier and more quavery than we’re used to hearing (if we haven’t heard him lately). “And Still I Am Searching,” he sings, and it’s yet another affirmation of personal hopefulness, this one much more personal than most.

It’s a fitting though melancholy finish to a collection of nearly 40 songs that Seeger wrote outright or had a hand in developing, put together by former Ralph Nader assistant Jim Musselman, founder of Appleseed Recordings.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Into the Fire

Personal Narrative Dept.: This piece appears in today’s Metroland, but I’m posting it here with different photos. You can see the one that runs with the story here, along with another tale from the kitchen of the Elms Inn.


MY FIRST SENSE that this would be no easy course of training came not when I donned my set of chef’s whites, nor as the chef who would be training me displayed a menu and explained the tasks that would be expected during my inaugural weeks. It came as I haltingly sliced my way through a basket of mushrooms, as lunch swung into gear and order after order was barked across the steam table. The chef rushed to my station to holler, “What the hell are you doing? Slice those things!” Whereupon he seized my knife and blitzed through a handful of mushrooms, his blade a blur.”Like that!” he shouted, and hurried back to the stove.

Mario Scala arrives for work. I was nervous
about taking his picture, and caught
him when he wasn't looking.

I was 21, a college dropout who’d just quarreled my way out of a nicely paying job as a waiter at a fancy Westchester County inn. One of my first work-seeking stops was The Elms Inn in Ridgefield, Conn., a highly regarded restaurant with a 25-year history. “We don’t need anyone on the floor,” the maître d’hôtel told me, “but talk to  the chef. He’s looking for someone.”

“I’m looking for someone who’s been in the business but hasn’t cooked,” Mario Scala told me. “I’m tired of know-it-all hotshots.” I explained my background and he hired me.

“We’ve got people who’ve been coming in for years and expect to have things the same way,” he said when I arrived early the next morning. “The same way every time. If you want to experiment, we’ll put it on as a special, but anything on the menu gets cooked my way.”

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

A Case for Diversity

From the Vault Dept.: The three weeks of Philadelphia Orchestra concerts at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center this summer formulaically rehash what’s safe and – apart from a concerto by Jennifer Higdon – predictable. It wasn’t always this way, but you have to go a considerable distance back to remember how it was. Here’s one of my contributions, from 1987.


WILLIAM BOLCOM IS A busy man. He missed his own riot a few years back. “You kind of like to be in on that sort of thing,” he says, speaking from his New York apartment. It took place in France, where passions run high in the new music biz (Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” is the best-known example of Parisian passion), and Bolcom puts it down to the fact that his work employed elements of ragtime.

William Bolcom
“People rushed on stage and there were fistfights. It was a great shock. And a scandal. It sounded like fun.”

Bolcom comes to Saratoga for a few weeks this summer as composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Several of his works will be performed, including his orchestration of a long-neglected ballet by Cole Porter.

“It will be nice working with Dennis Russell Davies again,” he says, referring to the orchestra’s principal summer guest conductor. “We’ve known each other for over twenty years, beginning when he was fledgling conductor of the Juilliard Repertory Ensemble.”