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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Brushing with Greatness

REVERSALS AND REVELATIONS are the exciting stuff of drama, with playwrights struggling to outdo themselves and one another with the surprises they can cook up for their characters. John Logan’s “Red,” currently receveiving its regional premiere at Albany’s Capital Repertory Theatre, is a study at the creative process as exemplified by the character of doomed Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko. It’s a rarefied script that demands some familiarity not only with that art movement but also ones that preceded and followed it, and it doesn’t hurt to have read a little Nietzsche.

Kevin McGuire and David Kenner
in "Red" | Photo by Joseph Schuyler
But it’s a script ultimately crafted for a Broadway audience (it netted six Tony awards), which prefers a predictable range of controversy and emotion. In the play’s opening moments, Rothko welcomes his new assistant, Ken, with a barrage of intimidating, Mamet-esque questions that set Rothko as an irascible rascal in the Gulley Jimson tradition, but with less charm. Kevin McGuire, who has skilfully transformed himself into a resonant simulacrum of the shambling artist, holds his own well against the continual challenge of fighting the script’s predictable tropes – but the journey he’s given is that of godlike artist to godlike but further disillusioned artist as he counters the carpings of the difficult-to-believe-in Ken.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Farming the Web

From the Computer Vault Dept.: With so much information exploding across the internet, how about an irregularly published magazine with a three-month lead time to tell you where to look for stuff? For the inaugural isue of ZD Internet Life, from onetime computer-magazine publishing giant Ziff-Davis, I wrote the piece below about farming resources. Amazingly, most of the sites persist in some form some eighteen years later!


FARMING IS POPULARLY SYNONYMOUS with technological ignorance, but forget that image of the fellow chewing a stem of straw. The men and women who farm today are as likely to be sitting in front of a computer as they are to be perched on a tractor. Farming is traditionally a community-wide activity that relies on the experience of others; using the Internet sites listed below, that community is as tightly-knit as it ever was but also happens to cover a lot more ground. Weather maps and agricultural news are instantly available. Illustrated how-to guides take you through a variety of projects. And all of this information can be as helpful to the weekend farmer as to the full-time professional.


Noah’s Ark is an organic farm based in California; its enthusiastic proprietor tends a Web site called Don’t Panic Eat Organic ( You’ll find a freewheeling mix of news and gossip and useful information, the kind of stuff you might hear at the general store (if the general store could stay in business). Start with a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather link to answer the farmer’s first question, then find out why you should build a barn owl nest--and how to build it, with pictures. Read a treatise on ladybugs (or lady beetles, as they’re termed here) and learn how to identify the many varieties. Noah’s Ark grows an exotic, sweet fruit called cherimoya, and encourages you to do so, too, so you’ll find complete instructions. The lists are haphazard, and there’s little consistency to the graphic design, but this site rates high just on enthusiasm.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Companionable Pacing

From the Chamber Dept.: This afternoon the Emerson Quartet will make its final Schenectady appearance with David Finckel in the cello chair. They’ve been coming here for decades; they – and Finckel – will be returning. But it’s a taking-stock moment, so you as you breathlessly await my Metroland review of the concert, here are the most recent and the oldest Emerson reviews I’ve written.


YOU MAY HAVE THOUGHT that the award for Longest String Quartet Made Up of Slow Movements was won by Shostakovich for his final work in that form, but Haydn nabbed it two centuries earlier when he arranged his orchestral work “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross” for that instrumentation.

The Emerson Quartet: Now
It runs nearly an hour, depending upon tempos, repeats and whether you include an Intermezzo that Haydn later wrote for a choral version. Although the Emerson Quartet omitted the Intermezzo (which is on their recording of the work) and shortened some of the other movements, it still clocked in at about 50 minutes at their performance last Sunday at Union College.

This was the ensemble’s 27th appearance in the College’s renowned concert series, itself in its 38th year, and a wonderful kickoff to the season.

Haydn wrote the piece in response to a commission circa 1786, and a year later his quartet arrangement appeared. Or maybe it wasn’t his: The voicings betray haste and/or incompetence, so the Emersons touched up the score using the original version as a guide.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Live Leo

From the Vault Dept.: Leo Kottke performs tonight at a theater at Albany’s Empire State Plaza – better known as The Egg – so to whet your appetite, here is a pair of reviews I wrote about earlier visits.


TO SAY THAT MUSIC AND WORDS define Leo Kottke is an understatement. He gives the impression of living in a stream of words and music, constantly flowing through him and shared in snippets with whatever audience he happens to face, as if he were a radio that can be switched on and off but continues its endless programming regardless.

Leo Kottke
This is exemplified in the stories he tells. They seem to pick up in midstream, almost in mid-sentence. They tumble us over a rocky course of arcane thought and language, all the more hilarious for the sense of spontaneity that’s conveyed. They end with a laugh but you’re sure there’d be more to tell, more to listen to if Kottke chose to continue speaking.

But he’s been playing his guitar all along, highlighting the tale with strums and tunings and funny little musical quotes. And then a song bursts forth, often highlighted by a gravel-voiced vocal.

If the tune is an instrumental, you can be assured it will be highly rhythmic, demonstrating Kottke’s legendary ability to finger-pick a complicated accompanying figure even as he wreathes hairpin turns in a multi-layered melody. His opener at his recent Troy Music Hall concert was the bouncy “William Powell,” an original tune with a Samba feel (he once explained the title only by observing that he first intended to call it “Lana Turner”).

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Rothko Toast

Evanescent Art Dept.: To celebrate the work of Mark Rothko – especially (but, I’m afraid, coincidentally) in light of the just-opened production of John Logan’s play “Red” at Albany’s Capital Repertory Theatre – San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art is offering Rothko Toast.

Rothko Toast
Specifically, it’s offered by the museum’s rooftop coffeeshop, the Blue Bottle Coffee Bar. This is part of an Oakland-based chain, although that’s probably not the word for an enterprise that insists on offering freshly roasted coffee (it’s never more than 48 hours old) made from organic, pesticide-free beans.

The shop is named for a Viennese coffeehouse that was opened in 1683 by war hero Franz George Kolshitsky, who learned about coffee when he went undercover among the invading Turks, whose army he helped defeat.

Rothko Toast + Jams ($5) celebrates the artist’s “No. 14 1960,”by spreading apricot butter and wild blueberry jam on Acme bread.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Now You See It

Out of the Hat Dept.: Harry Blackstone Jr. carried his father’s famous name into the second half of the 20th century, but without using the routines that made the first Blackstone one of the world’s most famous magicians. The younger prestidigitator invented a slew of his own, most of which are still in use today. Below is my review of Blackstone’s 1990 Schenectady appearance, followed by a preview piece. I remember the interview well, as the magician was one of the most gracious people I’ve ever spoken with.


“HERE’S SOMETHING my father told me,” Harry Blackstone told a young admirer backstage at Proctor’s Theatre Saturday night. “Every boy between the ages of six and 16 wants to be magician. The ones who go on to do so are the ones who never grow up.” He flashed the Blackstone smile, a benevolent grin tinged with devilment.

Harry Blackstone, Jr.
It’s easy to believe that Blackstone heeded that advice. After all, during the course of his two-hour show he’d swiped a volunteer’s watch and wallet, savaged his wife with fierce-looking blades and turned a boy’s prize rabbit into a box of chocolates, insulting another area newspaper in the process (“See? There’s nothing in it!”)

Then there were the simply astonishing things he does, like causing a lightbulb to float into the house, right over the heads of the audience, and predicting randomly-chosen playing cards. He even predicted a gastronomically-awful, randomly-chosen menu.

But his most impressive power, for my money, is his ability to levitate kids out of their seats. The audience was filled with youngsters eager to take part in anything he had in mind for them: an early request for young volunteers swamped the aisles with a most unbashful assortment.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

New Tricks

From the Kennel Dept.: Here’s a story I wrote about twenty years ago, playing on the time-honored premise of the beast that can talk, and not of your Mister Ed variety. If there’s more than a hint of Saki’s Tobermory in this – well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.


WHEN HOWIE SHORE’S DOG, Phlox, began talking, the surprise of it didn’t hit home for a while. At first Howie blindly, sleepily accepted it — Phlox had always been articulate in Dog, so why not in English as well? — and moved to obey his mutt.

Mutt he was, a spaniel-sized specimen with a spotted coat, colored so strangely that you might suspect the beast slept in the studio of a sloppy painter.

Which wasn’t far from wrong: the dog came from Lila, a former girlfriend, an artist who dabbled in advertising and who, when she wasn’t naming animals after plants, named plants after old boyfriends. “Water Charles, please,” was one of the strange commands Howie heard during her brief residency at his apartment.

After the split he was left with the dog. “Something to remember me by,” said Lila, and the amount of attention the dog demanded was reminiscent of the woman — a mutt herself, as far as her ex was concerned.

Howie was more of a purebreed. At 24 he had a comforting sense of his life being, if not in control, at least nearing the correct track. He worked in a local electronics store, evenings and weekends, supervising videos and music. He accepted a generous allowance from his mother to encourage the only expression of love she practiced, which unfortunately also encouraged her wish out loud that he’d return to her house. He detested both, but the money allowed him to live with what essentially was a part-time job.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Collection Calling

From the Vault Dept.: Away back in the 1980s, before the boom times hit and we all grew wealthy, there was a phenomenon called “debt” that often left people owing more money than they could pay. Usually, I was among them. So it was a treat to get an assignment to write about collection agencies. Having so often been on the receiving end of those phone calls, I got to see what an actual collection office looked like. It looked like an office. This was one of a handful of pieces I wrote for what was then called the Capital District Business Review.


CLARK BRIGGS HAS ADVICE which, if followed faithfully, will put him out of business: “Pay your bills when they’re due. If you can’t pay on a given day, call them up and tell them why you’re going to be late.”

But he’s not worried about losing any work. He runs North-East Adjusters, a collection agency in Scotia, and finds that “for every one who pays attention, ten fall off the wagon. Almost every young person gets in over his head by the time he’s 25. Most of them struggle through; some go bankrupt. It’s part of the learning process.”

He doesn’t fit the image of the collection agent as a grasping, Scrooge-like ogre, but then none of the agents do. They couldn’t if they wanted to, because Federal legislation changed the face of the business a decade ago, imposing strictly-regulated guidelines to protect consumers from undue harassment or abuse.

“It was designed to protect them from us,” says Shirley Waple, CEO of Professional Adjustment Bureau in Troy. “But it still doesn’t protect us from them.”

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Theater of the Absurd

Breaking Eggs Dept.: When the curtain fell on Patricia Snyder’s tenure as director of the NY State Theatre Institute in 2010, it was a sad end to what essentially was the second act of a story of a fight for children’s education. The first act ended in 1989, after a cabal put in place by then-governor Mario Cuomo unseated the theater company. As befits anything set in motion by state government, it’s a complicated story, and I was the first to break news of the controversy in the article below, from December 1987. I’ll return at the end of it with a postscript.


ACCORDING TO A POPULAR STORY, Nelson Rockefeller was seated at lunch with an architect, discussing the lecture hall he wanted built on his new South Mall in Albany. “I want it to look different,” he said, and, placing a grapefruit on top of a creamer, decided, “I want it to look like this.”

Even before construction began, a cloud’s-eye view of the architect’s design showed an oval in the midst of the Mall, and when the grapefruit (slightly flattened) did go up it already had been nicknamed the Egg. You see it most clearly when approaching Albany from the east, the towers of the mall rising as you near the Hudson.

This high visibility may be at the root of a controversy threatening to remove the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts (ESIPA) from the Egg’s two theaters, which it now operates. So confusing is the hodgepodge of legislation and agreements that keeps the theaters in business that a cleverly planted wedge may begin to bust open the Egg at a meeting of a board of directors scheduled (after two postponements) for Dec. 18. It’s been whispered that ESIPA soon will be kicked out of the Egg, and, while nobody wants to take credit for the rumor, there are enough facts to suggest that a major change is imminent.

But it would be a sly change, over almost before we knew it, thriving on the confusion inherent in an administrative setup where two distinct entities sort of merged into a third. To understand what’s about to happen, you have to understand what already went on.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Under the Tuscan Soil

From the Vault Dept.: With the days lengthening and the weather warming and everything in nature that grows growing, I think about escaping yard work. Here’s a pleasant recollection of one such getaway.


DURING A RECENT WEEK spent traveling through and dining in a few of the cities and towns of Tuscany, I never saw a supermarket. That’s because the cuisine stays close to the fertile ground. It may be presumptuous to generalize about an area the size of Massachusetts based on mere hours spent in the environs of Florence and Siena, but it’s a common affliction among visiting American writers.

Fattoria Lavacchio
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The food is rustic, I was warned. It’s not fancy. No sauces. What I wasn’t told is that dining is an all-day affair that includes tending and harvesting the farmland, butchering and preparing the meats, making pasta, putting together a compelling ragù and, especially, producing excellent wine and olive oil.

Tuscany is the upper front thigh of Italy’s leg, bounded by the regions of Umbria and Emilia-Romagna, with the Pisa end of the province facing the Tyrrheian Sea. Despite its extensive seaside holdings, Tuscany’s cuisine is defined by its two greatest agricultural products: olive oil and Chianti. As Waverly Root observes in The Food of Italy, “Its people speak the national language in its purest form, and ... cook the most robust form of food, meat (especially beef), in the simplest manner, without fuss or frills.”

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Which Way the Wind?

From the Celluloid Shelf Dept.: With Robert Redford’s movie The Company You Keep exploring the topic, I thought it was time to revisit a documentary about the Weather Undergound that was released ten years ago. Although I’d given up film reviewing a while back, Metroland asked me to write about it because, unlike so many others around the office, I was alive when the incidents described therein took place. Hope that qualification endures! This is a slightly longer version of the piece that ran in the magazine.


THE VIETNAM WAR FOOTAGE is grainy and scarred by time, archetype of a look now imposed on videos to portray gritty reality. Combined with well-placed sound-effects and a brilliant musical score, the footage is distant, dreamlike, nauseous. Because a movie, with its shifting points of view and telescoped time, is a vehicle of dreams, we’re viscerally affected. We want to avenge the Vietnamese boy whose head is blown open and whose blood geysers onto the ground for long moments after the executioner-soldiers stroll away.

Other horrific actualities of bombings and bodies and point-blank murders follow, interspersed with kinescopes of TV news tallies of the soaring numbers of American dead. So we applaud (with a measure of guilt) the proposed mission of the most radical element of a radical student group, the kids who take over a fractious Students for a Democratic Society convention in 1969 and announce their intention to fight violence with violence.

The Weather Underground is a brilliant documentary that shrewdly uses documentary techniques to present an emotionally charged view of events that, 30 years later, parallel contemporary events. And that wasn’t even the intention when directors Green and Siegel began work on this film five years ago.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

How Marriages are Arranged

Guest Blogger: H. L. Mencken (1880-1956). A tireless critic who larded his essays with impressive wit, Mencken wrote intelligently on a broad range of topics including politics, social issues, and the performing arts. He also wrote The American Language in 1919, producing what was then a definitive text on the way we speak, and was revised and expanded until it became three volumes by 1948. In Defense of Women, from which the extract below is drawn, first appeared in 1918 and was somewhat rewritten for its 1922 re-release. Reaction to it was mixed. According to Mencken’s biographer, Fred Hobson, “Depending on the position of the reader, he was either a great defender of women’s rights or, as a critic labeled him in 1916, ‘the greatest misogynist since Schopenhauer’,’the country’s high-priest of woman-haters.’”


H. L. Mencken
I HAVE SAID THAT WOMEN are not sentimental, i.e., not prone to permit mere emotion and illusion to corrupt their estimation of a situation. The doctrine, perhaps, will raise a protest. The theory that they are is itself a favorite sentimentality; one sentimentality will be brought up to substantiate another; dog will eat dog. But an appeal to a few obvious facts will be enough to sustain my contention, despite the vast accumulation of romantic rubbish to the contrary.

Turn, for example, to the field in which the two sexes come most constantly into conflict, and in which, as a result, their habits of mind are most clearly contrasted—to the field, to wit, of monogamous marriage. Surely no long argument is needed to demonstrate the superior competence and effectiveness of women here, and therewith their greater self-possession, their saner weighing of considerations, their higher power of resisting emotional suggestion. The very fact that marriages occur at all is a proof, indeed, that they are more cool-headed than men, and more adept in employing their intellectual resources, for it is plainly to a man’s interest to avoid marriage as long as possible, and as plainly to a woman’s interest to make a favorable marriage as soon as she can.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Scene of the Crime

AS A SIX-YEAR-OLD FAN of the Hardy Boys books, I was becoming trained to spot the evidence of malfeasance all around me. Frank and Joe had the uncanny ability to give a crime scene the once over and discover the clues needed to solve whatever mystery was attached. I sought to wield a similar ability.

Life in suburban New Jersey in 1962 wasn’t blessed with much crime – at least such as would be meaningful to a kid my age. No money was reported missing from my home; none of the houses on South Maple Avenue reported any burglaries, and there certainly weren’t any corpses turning up.

In a word, life was dull. It didn’t hurt that Frank and Joe Hardy’s dad, Fenton, was a private detective whose work put him in regular contact with the underworld, and they were based somewhere on Long Island, which wasn’t too far from me.

In fact, two of my grandparents and a dizzy aunt not unlike the Hardy Boys’s own Aunt Gertrude lived on the westernmost part of the island and, although their urban Astoria neighborhood bore little resemblance to the sylvan paradise of the Hardy’s Bayport, it stood to reason that people in Astoria, or at the very least in my grandparents’s apartment building, would need crimes solved.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Ramblin’ Man

From the Vault Dept.: Sad to say, I missed Tom Paxton’s performance in Schenectady last Saturday. I chose instead to attend the monthly get-together of like-minded folk that’s been going on in my community for over a decade, a pot-luck supper and songfest – although I did use the opportunity to foist a bunch of Paxton songs upon the assemblage. Here’s a review I wrote of a pair of concerts he performed in this area nearly a decade ago.


FOR OVER 40 YEARS, Tom Paxton has cultivated three different songwriting identities. He has written ballads so perfect and poignant that they seem to always have been around. His topical songs crackle with wit and righteous anger. And then he can turn around and
write children’s songs just as timeless and appealing as the ballads.

All three identities were displayed at the Egg last Saturday, along with a fourth compelling aspect of his talent: Paxton’s appeal as a performer.

Eric Weissberg and Tom Paxton
Photo by Chuck Morse
For the kids, his afternoon show was an hour-long journey through realms of the child’s imagination, much of it centered around the zoo. “Goin’ to the Zoo,” of course, from his very first recording (on the Gaslight label), and portraits of animals like “Allen Gator” and the fish who live “At the ‘Quarium.” Kids are kinetic listeners, so Paxton encouraged (and choreographed) hand an arm movements to go with the songs. “The Marvelous Toy” is so much of a standard that it’s a treat to be reminded that Paxton actually wrote it (while a soldier at Fort Dix, no less).

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Richard McKee (1941-2013)

In Memoriam: Richard McKee stopped by my house in Schenectady one wintry day in 1985 so that I could interview him for the piece below. We became and remained very close friends.


BASS-BARITONE RICHARD MCKEE sang in a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” in Amsterdam last Saturday. This Friday he’ll be a soloist with the Octavo Singers in their “Messiah” at Proctor’s Theatre.

Richard McKee
It would seem that the Christmas season would be a steady source of “Messiahs,” but, as McKee explains, that hasn’t been his experience.

“I haven’t sung that part for years because I’ve been on the road so much. But my wife and I bought a house in Amsterdam a year and a half ago and I’m having the pleasant experience of being part of a community. That’s what has brought me these Messiahs, and I’m delighted.”

McKee has an imposing presence that complements his very imposing voice. He has a repertory of over 80 operatic roles, many of them in conjunction with the New York City Opera, with whom he has performed every season since his debut there in 1974.

“I just finished up a season that included ‘Daughter of the Regiment,’ ‘The Mikado,’ in which I started as Poo-Bah and later took over the title role; ‘Love for Three Oranges’ with wonderful sets by Maurice Sendak, ‘Kismet,’ and ‘La Rondine.’

Friday, April 12, 2013

Woodman, Don't Spare That Tree!

Guest Blogger: S. J. Perelman. He became best known for the New Yorker pieces that persisted well into his and the century’s 70s, but virtuoso wordsmith Perelman also wrote a couple of Broadway shows – and a pair of Marx Brothers movies. His style was so unique that, according to the writer himself, “Before they made S. J. Perelman, they broke the mold.”


NOT LONG AGO a landscape architect down my way was retained by a lady who, to put it bluntly, had just fallen heir to a satchelful of the stuff. Instead of the same old flowers and trees, the fair client wanted a garden plan for her country house which would express her own unique personality: something arresting, terribly audacious, yet smart; in short, identifying her unmistakably as a lady who had just fallen heir to a satchelful. The architect smacked his lips in a refined way, like a fox in a henhouse, and went to work. Employing a dozen wooden horses gleaned from a defunct amusement park, and a profusion of the rarest vines, creepers, and bulbs known to man, he created a spectacular floral carrousel that dazzled the countryside. Farmers came from miles around to lean on their manure forks and gape at the horticultural gew-gaw, but Mrs. Krebs was clearly disappointed.

“You haven’t captured my mood at all,” she pouted. “Deep down, I’m really a mystic – haunting, inscrutable. Now this,” she went on, waving toward a mournful Chirico which had set her back eleven thousand clams, “this is really me.”

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Kismet of Borodin

From the Vault Dept.: From the series of program booklets I wrote for the sadly defunct Dorian Recordings label, here’s the St. Petersburg Quartet’s Borodin. I sat in on one of the recording sessions, and the players were as astonishing in their craft as they were charming between takes.


ST. PETERSBURG LONG VIED with Moscow as Russia’s most prominent city, and it carries its own wealth of distinguished history and splendor. It was founded, by Peter I the Great, in 1703, and went through a series of renamings – Petrograd in 1914,  Leningrad in 1924, St. Petersburg again in 1991. It sits at the top of the Gulf of Finland and includes some 40 delta islands, and has been vital seaway for the country’s trade. The first Russian steamship was built here in 1813; the country’s first railway opened in 1837, with a line to Moscow established in 1851.

As the hometown to both composer Alexander Borodin and the ensemble performing his works on this disc, St. Petersburg resonates throughout this recording. It was where Borodin was born, on Nov. 12, 1833, to an elderly nobleman – although not officially. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina reminds us that it was the fashion of aristocrats in that time and place to keep young mistresses. When Prince Gedianov’s son was born to his 24-year-old concubine, the boy was officially registered as the scion of one of the Prince’s serfs, Porfiry Borodin.

Alexander’s mother homeschooled the boy, who grew fluent in several languages and several musical instruments, flute and cello among them. He specialized in chemistry at the Medico-Surgical Academy while also studying zoology, botany, anatomy, and crystallography. He received his doctorate in 1858 for a dissertation On the Analogy of Arsenical with Phosphoric Acid. He also was fond of building his own fireworks. Among scientific circles, he achieved world fame through his research on aldehydes. By 1864 he was a full professor at the Academy; at the same time, he’d joined forces with other like-minded musicians and, at their prodding, was at work on his first symphony.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Mark of the Squealer

BY THE TIME I saw the movie “Dead End,” wherein a thuggish street gang marvels at the significance of a hoodlum’s knife-slash wound, I’d already had a poignant taste of the squealer business.

“Dead End” is the 1937 Humphrey Bogart picture that introduced young actors Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and the others who would go on to be featured in classics like “Angels with Dirty Faces” and an increasingly disappointing series of comedies in which they were billed as “The East Side Kids” and “The Bowery Boys,” among other “Dead End”-avoiding monikers. They offered an image of fraternity that I (briefly) convinced myself was not unlike my own group of high-school friends – at least insofar as avoiding the “mark of the squealer” was concerned.

"Th' mahhk of th' squee-lah!" (Dead End, 1937)
I earned it, inadvertently, I’d like to think, while in elementary school. An aggressively underachieving student, I was summoned before a succession of psychological counselors and subjected to the tests du jour, which included such cinema classics as Rorschach images and word-association games. Although I rarely complained of anything to my parents, whom I feared would overreact, I confessed to a counselor that I tended to feel left out, neglected by my classmates. “At lunchtime,” I told him, “all they do is play cards, and nobody asks me to play.”

A game called Setback had become a sudden craze, and each of cafeteria’s refectory tables had several kid-clusters inside which flashed the blue or red backs of Bicycle decks. Shortly after my confession, an edict was announced: No more card-playing in school. The anger of my fellow students only intensified my silent guilt at being the cause of this proscription. Why else would it have happened?

Monday, April 08, 2013

The Other CIA

From the Stove Dept.: Leave the Albany area, which remains stubbornly regressive in its restaurants, and you find the influence of the Culinary Institute at most of the better eateries. Both of the books have been updated, and much has changed at the school since I wrote about it in 1996, so I’ll be updating the piece below before too long.


WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE between the professional chef and the one who cooks impressively at home? Both have access to the same equipment – in fact, I recently sprang for a restaurant stove so I’d have that same 20,000 BTU cooking power in my kitchen – and the same ingredients are available if you know where to look. What’s different is attitude. The trained chef knows techniques, is intimately familiar with the taste and texture of ingredients and has no fear of experimentation when departing from recipes.

The New Professional Chef is one of two new books produced by the Culinary Institute of America, the Hyde Park, NY, school where some of the world’s finest chefs-to-be receive their training. The books – the other is Exploring Wine – do such a fine job with their subjects that I visited the CIA to learn more about the training conducted there.

The school was started 50 years ago in New Haven, CT, and the former Culinary Institute of Connecticut outgrew both its name and its location. In 1972, the institute found its new home overlooking the Hudson River, on a 150-acre campus built as a Jesuit seminary.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

The Overcoat

From the Thrift Shop Dept.: Perhaps this had something to do with growing up near Danbury, Conn., in the waning days of that city’s fame as a hatmaking center. Haberdashery was important to my friends and me during our teen years, and we promenaded through town in fancy cloaks and high hats, to the point where the police stopped asking what the hell we were up to. There’s no parable or moral intended in the tale below, but if you wish for more insight on the idea of the overcoat, Gogol it.


I DIDN’T GO TO COLLEGE in the autumn following my high school graduation. In terms of ambition, I was at loose ends. Too many career paths distracted me, none of them practical. I longed to make my living with theater, music, words. I’d starred in a couple of high-school plays; I’d gotten a toehold with a couple of community theater groups. I’d written the opening movement of a dreadfully mediocre piano trio, and knew composing wasn’t my forte. My violin playing was wretched, but I dreamed of putting together a program of the unusual songs I enjoyed singing. The New Yorker had yet to appreciate the genius of the stories with which I deluged the magazine.

Edward Steichen (sans overcoat)
Photo by Oliver Morris
I’d spent my first post-high-school summer working part time as a proofreader for the town’s weekly newspaper, which left evenings free to continue to socialize with the friends who’d soon be surrendering themselves to higher education. I was trying to convince an ex-girlfriend-to-be not to throw me over, a process hampered by my inability to communicate. What I did have going for me was independence, as my family had moved from Connecticut to Illinois before the year began, and I occupied the top floor of the large home of one my closest friends.

This changed dramatically in September. My friend’s father remarried. The house went on the market. My meager proofreader’s wages would buy me no lodging. I had nobody with whom to pal around. So I packed up and joined my family in Illinois, accepting a humiliating job selling shoes at a mall-based Sears.

The reason you can’t go home again, as Thomas Wolfe knew all too well, is that you’ve grown into your own patterns of behavior unmediated by parental or other family approval. After two months of top-of-the-lungs tumult, I returned to Connecticut – romantically, by train, with no place to stay, no job prospects, and very little money. After a few nights of couch hopping, I found a room in the home of a generous friend and a job, albeit part time, in a record shop. As soon as a desirable young woman presented herself at the classical-music counter to seek my advice, I’d have a new girlfriend. Things were looking up.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Fancying Local Food

From the Fridge Dept.: New York’s Capital Region is being dragged willy-nilly into something approaching the 21st century as its dining public comes to grips with the fact that fresh local food is going to be made available no matter how assiduously they avoid the increasing numbers of farmers’ markets. Here’s my account of meal held six years ago that featured two of the state’s most appealing products.


THIS EXAMPLE OF FINGER FOOD really was no bigger than your finger. A crisp pecan topped with a mini-marshmallow-sized puff of blue cheese mousse. Perched vertically above, like a tiny sail, was a triangular gala apple wedge. Comprising a little bite that did its job quickly, sparking the palate with a classic combination of tartness, sweetness and crunch.

Another classic combo: pork sausage and sage. How about combining them by wrapping a dollop of said sausage in a sage leaf, lightly breading and deep frying it?

Then there’s the challenge of pairing apples and pork. For another finger-food item, spread a crouton with apple butter and top with a pork-based pâté.

Thus did chefs Brian Molino and Erin Boyle meet the challenge of taking two abundant local ingredients and devising a fancy meal. And this was only a part of the first course, a succession of tray-passed hors d’oeuvres.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Know What I’m Thinking?

I’M DELIGHTED TO LEARN that President Obama has announced an initiative to map the human brain, a program that already has gained an acronym by getting monikered as Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. For me, the most compelling aspect is the project’s goal of how sections of the brain interact with one another in real time (as opposed to what?), suggesting a system of tappets and cams continuously awhirl.

An image that comes from my own experience of dealing with the organ that throbs within my own skull. I’ve been packing it with information for many decades, and it rewards me by reminding me what’s in there. But it has lousy senses of timing and discretion.

Song lyrics, for example. As I entered my double-digit years, I discovered the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. A three-record set culled from Malcolm Sargent’s series for the Angel label devoted a disc apiece to highlights from “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “Pirates of Penzance,” and packed the third with patter songs. Which meant that before long I was emitting uprovoked, unaccompanied renditions of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” (which I’ve also parodied, as here and here) and adding words like “mamelon” and “ravelin” to my lexicon, where they remain, profoundly useless.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Minding Your Ps and Qs and Then Some

Historic Software Dept.: Here’s another dose of the stuff I churned out twenty years ago when writing for computer magazines. This appeared in the long-defunct PC/Computing; what I can say in its favor is that I was well paid for the piece. Correct Grammar's parent company, Writing Tools Group, was a division of WordStar, none of which exists today.


CORRECT GRAMMAR and WordPerfect are old DOS friends, so it’s no surprise that version 2.0 of Correct Grammar for Windows should have a hook into WordPerfect for Windows as a major selling point. The two work together so well, in fact, that it seems like the grammar checker is built in – exactly as it looked back in the DOS days.

Writers are rarely perfect, but the same is also true of electronic grammar checkers. Correct Grammar combats that by letting you customize almost every option. Ironically, the better your grasp of grammar, the better you’ll be able to take advantage of the program.

Still, the defaults settings will allow the grammatically disadvantaged to blindly steer by Correct Grammar’s recommendations. In many cases, a suggested substitution can be applied with a single mouse click.

Ten pre-set styles (including “technical,” “academic,” and, comfortingly, “reviewer”) present over 30 options that can be toggled for checking. For example, where “business” checks for 15 of the 16 “usage and style” options (only “cliché” goes unselected), “advertising” looks for but four.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

On Drawing

Guest Blogger: A. P. Herbert. For the introduction, let me turn it over to Christopher Morley, who presented this work as part of the Morley-edited anthology Modern Essays.
A. P. Herbert is one of the most brilliant of the younger English writers, and has done remarkable work in fields apparently incompatible: light verse, humorous drolleries, and a beautifully written tragic novel, The Secret Battle. This last was unquestionably one of the most powerful books born of the War, but its sale was tragically small. The House by the River, a later book, was also an amazingly competent and original tale, apparently cast along the lines of the conventional “mystery story,” but really a study of selfishness and cowardice done with startling irony and intensity.
A. P. Herbert
Mr. Herbert went to Winchester School and New College, Oxford, where he took his degree in 1914. He saw military service at the Dardanelles and in France, and is now on the staff of Punch. There is no young writer in England from whom one may more confidently expect a continuance of fine work. This airy and delicious little absurdity is a perfect example of what a genuine humorist can do.
If there is still any one in doubt as to the value of the oldfashioned classical training in forming a lusty prose style, let him examine Mr. Herbert’s The Secret Battle. This book often sounds oddly like a translation from vigorous Greek – e.g., Herodotus. It is lucid, compact, logical, rich in telling epithet, informal and swift. If these are not the cardinal prose virtues, what are?

IT IS COMMONLY SAID that everybody can sing in the bathroom; and this is true. Singing is very easy. Drawing, though, is much more difficult. I have devoted a good deal of time to Drawing, one way and another; I have to attend a great many committees and public meetings, and at such functions I find that Drawing is almost the only Art one can satisfactorily pursue during the speeches. One really cannot sing during the speeches; so as a rule I draw. I do not say that I am an expert yet, but after a few more meetings I calculate that I shall know Drawing as well as it can be known.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Boy Meets Girl

Back in the Daze Dept.: I have a deep affection for classic screwball comedies, and Boy Meets Girl is one of the best, poking fun at Hollywood, always a good target, and the phenomenon of young (very young!) children as stars. It was turned into a film starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, and even if the movie is a little lifeless, they nailed the delivery speed the dialogue demands. Favorite line: “Have you all got napkins?” Back when the Acting Company’s production visited Proctor’s in Schenectady, I was reviewing for the Schenectady Gazette under my own moniker and writing pieces for Metroland as “George Gordon.” And I took on the challenging job of writing a different review of the same show for each paper, as you’ll see below.


BY 1935, HOLLYWOOD WAS a big, spoiled, obnoxious brat of an institution that had just learned to talk and spoke a lot of drivel. But it paid plenty and lured lots of literary talent. F. Scott Fitzgerald went, and returned to write “The Last Tycoon.” P.G. Wodehouse went and returned to write “Barmy in Wonderland.” Nathaniel West gave us “The Day of the Locust.”

Larry Green, John Tillotson, and Douglas Krizner.
Photo by Peter Cunningham
Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, who shocked late-20s Broadway with the chilling firecracker wit of “The Front Page,” went to Hollywood and wrote many successful pictures together (“Wuthering Heights” was one) but never did a Hollywood portrait for the stage. It remained for Sam and Bella Spewack to do so, and they affectionately caricatured the team with a silly door-slammer that summed up The Studio’s story ideology with the play’s title: “Boy Meets Girl.”

After 54 years it remains as much a tribute to a particular style of stage comedy as it does to its subject. George Abbott, who originally directed the play, put his stamp on a wisecracking, fast-paced manner that will leave you gasping with laughter. The “Boy Meets Girl” revival that played Proctor’s Theatre last Friday was directed, by Brian Murray, in a different style: it left you gasping in boredom.