Friday, September 18, 2015

One More Time

Where the hell does the time go?

That's what I found myself thinking tonight, when, thanks to a Facebook alert from a friend, tonight I got to see Joe Jackson play the intimate space at Iridium, a taping for a PBS series called "Front & Center."

Jackson, a striking, lanky figure, opened with a few solo piano songs, then was joined by a band that included his original bassist, Graham Maby, who propelled him through his catchy, spiky first hit, "Is She Really Going Out With Him?"
Jackson & Maby Redux (photo credit: David Steven Cohen)
Sprinkled among the familiar tunes, Jackson highlighted  a half-dozen songs from an upcoming album called "FAST FORWARD," explaining that the title refers to a Time Machine concept, in which you can propel yourself far enough into the future that looking back on the present, you can make sense of it.  It seemed an apt concept the day after the GOP Debate circus, and the Arab-American teen arrested for bringing a clock he built to school, and -- well, pick a story.

But it also was a Fast Forward for me personally,

When Jackson released his first album, Look Sharp!  I was finishing high school -- and my musical taste had just graduated from the Eagles and Queen and Yes to Springsteen, the Clash, Graham Parker and Elvis Costello.  Jackson was in the proto-punk vein, full of high energy snark, tunefulness and wordplay.

And -- by whatever means we found out about concerts and bought tickets back then (radio? a trip to a department store ticket outlet?) -- I got to see him play live a few weeks before I went off to college. (I  had to check the below ticket stub for not only the date but the venue. I have no recollection of trekking to the the long-gone Calderone Concert Hall in Hempstead, Long Island. And yes, that says $8.50.)

After a second similar (and excellent) record, the same year, I'm The Man, Jackson left punk behind. (I raved about Beat Crazy in my college newspaper, but it didn't propel it up the charts.) 

It feels like he was always unjustly viewed as a wanna-be or also ran -- even though his heritage album of all jazz music, Jumpin Jive, was recorded at the same time Costello recorded his country album Almost Blue - and actually was released first! (That was a confusing year to be a fan of British New Wave LPs). He also had a bigger hit than Costello ever had with "Steppin Out," which coincided with MTV, but he never again had such a huge audience. 

In the intervening years, I haven't been a devotee but also didn't drop him; I kept collecting songs I liked, and live  albums that included  cover versions that he made his own of acts like Steely Dan, Bowie, and the Yardbirds. 

And tonight, after playing "my only nostalgic song," the wistful "My Hometown," he said he was going to play the song that was the first one he ever played live -- when he was 16.  

Wait. I did some quick math -- that was 9 years before I saw him perform on Long Island -- which itself was THIRTY SIX FRIGGIN YEARS AGO. 

Fast Forward, indeed. 

The below video isn't from the Iridium show --  but it's the song he played, so it'll have to do until we fast forward to the show airs in January. Hasta la vista. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Remembrance of Bike Rides Past

Feb 2005, "The Gates" 
A recent NYC history blog post about a statue fragment - more on that in a moment - reminded me how much a simple half-bike attachment (pictured above) ended up playing a key role in my maintaining a connection to my daughters after my divorce.

As a freelancer working at home whose wife worked full-time, I'd been more involved as a caregiver than most Dads. I bought a tag-along for my bike, and installed a seat on the front bar for my younger daughter, and we often tooled around the city to appointments on it -- in those pre-bikelane days often riding on side streets and even sidewalks to avoid traffic.

Central Park dogs
The rides were filled with adventures we wouldn't have had any other ways; once, we passed a parked bus, and the driver used his PA system to inform me that my daughter was not pedaling and simply taking a free ride, shaming her into action.

Weather permitting, I'd take my older daughter across the park to her school on the east side, and we would count the numbers of dogs we passed (once we hit 100!) or clock the number of different state license plates we spied.

After moving out, I wanted to do everything I could to provide continuity and stability. But all I could afford was a one-bedroom sublet -- on alternate weekends they gamely slept on the pullout couch -- and then I got a TV writing job in L.A., which would help me pay for their schooling, but pull me even farther from them.

The kids were able to visit me, and took a quick shine to year-round beach weather and showbiz; my older daughter even made an impromptu cameo in an episode of West Wing. (That's her smiling at Bartlet as he takes the stage around the one minute mark.)
But I didn't want to lose a foothold of their real lives back in New York.  My younger daughter was just starting kindergarten.  Luckily, my boss let me take a few three day weekends to return to the city to maintain custody.  Unbenownst to my kids, those visits also usually included a trip to lawyers' offices or court to hammer out the divorce details, so it was important to me as well to have as much normalcy outside those difficult hours.

The bike came in handy as a way to extend our too-brief time together -- instead of putting them on a school bus, we'd have the adventure and conversation during the trip. (It also, it turned out, absolved my older daughter of the social discomfort of explaining to busmates why she wasn't getting on the bus at her usual stop, something I hadn't anticipated.) The "tag-along," as we christened it, gave us an identity, even a community; we'd excitedly point out other parent-child bike combos en route.

So even after my sublet ended, and I stayed in hotel rooms and apartment swaps, I still kept the bike around and took them to school on it when weather permitted. We fell into a regular route across the park and then emerged at Fifth Avenue south of the Met, and trial and error taught me the least-travelled street was East 80th. We started to look forward to the regular sights as reassuring talismans: the "Doggie Gym" on First Avenue (right) became so popular we'd actually leave for school earlier so we could stop and watch through the windows.

But our most beloved marker along the route was a head. A lopped-off statue head, sitting idly next to some trash cans outside a brownstone just east of Madison Ave. on 80th street. We became so fond of it we would wave and yell "Hi, head!" We had no idea where it was from, or what it was doing there, but it was definitely one of those "only in New York" sights.
Of course, the girls grew up. My younger daughter moved from the front-seat to the tag-along, and my older daughter rode her own bike (see photo up top, at Christo's remarkable Gates exhibit).

The tag-along was not without its mishaps: in 2005, I was  trying to be safe by riding my daughter to school on a sidewalk, I was surprised by a car pulling out of a recessed garage (left). I stopped short, and the whole weight of the bike and a half and its two riders -- landed on my ankle, tearing a ligament.

I limped her the rest of the way to school and then straight to the orthopedists. It was the beginning of the end of the era.

Trying to keep the three of us together, I did briefly own a tandem bike that I tried to hook the tag-along to, but it was laughably unwieldy.

Eventually I passed the tag-along to a neighbor with an age-appropriate daughter. I've moved back and forth to LA a half-dozen times for work my kids are now in high school and college, and now if I am lucky enough to grab either for a bike ride it's on adult bikes.

But yesterday I got an email from the Ephemeral New York about the sculpture head that brought me back -- and made me wonder about its magic powers. It turns out the New York Times' architecture critic Chritopher Gray had explained its origin in 2004 -- right around when I was doing my school shleps.
The house at No. 52...was owned until 1998 by Jerry Hammer, a theatrical producer, who now lives in Beverly Hills, Calif., but left the statue when he sold the house. Mr. Hammer said that in the 1960’s he was riding in a limousine with the developer Zachary Fisher, who motioned to the old Ziegfeld Theater, at 54th Street and the Avenue of the Americas, and said he was going to demolish it for a new office building.
Mr. Hammer said he pointed to a limestone head on the front of the building and asked Mr. Fisher for it as a joke. “Then,” he said, “about four months later, I hear noises outside, and it’s a truck with a crane, and a head, and they ask me where I want it.”
So the head came from the Joseph Urban facade of the old Ziegfeld theater -- built in 1927, financed by William Randolph Hearst, first home to the musical Showboat, later a movie theater and then a TV studio (Perry Como and the Emmys both broadcast from it.)

I think the woman is one of the two flanking the upper part.
So what's the magic power? All these years later, both my daughters are firmly ensconced in the theater, both at their schools and in their lives. Maybe that head was an augur.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Music of My Mind

Lester Bangs and his music collection
What do songs mean to us? Why do certain songs evoke sense memories so strongly? Where were you when you heard song X?

I was given a jolting reminder of how personal our experience of music can be watching the recent workshop production of "How to be a Rock Critic," the one-man show about Lester Bangs by my friends Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank.  During the show, Jensen-as-Bangs deejays maniacally through a vast catalogue of LPs from the Troggs to Iggy Pop while expressing trenchant, anarchic opinions and interweaving personal experiences from  journals.

One story in particular haunted me. In 1968, Bangs was living next door to a Hell's Angels hangout and witnessed the gang-rape of a woman -- to the strains of "I've Been Loving You Too Long" by Otis Redding (who had just died at 26 in a plane crash).

Bangs was haunted by his inability to intervene. And having heard the story told as the track plays, I am now never going to be able to hear that song again without associating it with that scenario.

Oddly enough, that same Redding song had previously evoked a very different kind of memory for me, personal and tender. It was used in a scene in the movie that was the very first set I ever visited, 1985's coming of age story Heaven Help Us starring Mary Stuart Masterson and Andrew McCarthy. (Song starts around the 1:00 mark)

The movie's director, Michael Dinner, had himself been a musician (and now directs on Justified and Masters of Sex). I actually tracked down his album Tom Thumb The Dreamer, which was pretty good. (Doing a little research now, I was reminded that his studio band included Elton John's rhythm section and James Taylor sideman Waddy Wachtel.)

When I hear the song, I don't just think of the set visit, which was exciting for a 23 year old reporter, but also all the missed opportunities and heartbreak around it.  The movie, a sweet autobiographical piece originally called "Catholic Boys" by a memorable hippy 40 year old named Charles Purpura, never found its audience; my piece never got published; the magazine I'd written it for soon went out of business. (I did end up profiling Mary Stuart Masterson for New York Magazine when she starred in John Hughes' now-forgotten Some Kind of Wonderful.) 

And then the memory was evoked last year, when I saw the name Charles Purpura again. I was taking over a TV writing class at NYU, stepping in for a professor who had passed away suddenly, at the age of 48, four weeks into the semester. On the office door of the professor who recruited me, Charlie Rubin, was the nameplate, CHARLES PURPURA.

Turns out, after only two other produced credits -- A CBS Schoolbreak special that won him an Emmy and Humanitas award, and a disastrous Justine Bateman/Liam Neeson/Julia Roberts rocker 1988 movie called Satisfaction -- Purpura had settled in to teaching at NYU -- and passed away at 59, in 2005, but his nameplate is too embedded to remove.* [SEE POSTSCRIPT BELOW]

We all have our associations with songs as personal as these, where one opening verse can trigger a host of memories. Inspired by the Bangs show, which spends some time on the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks, I recently dug out Morrison's Moondance and listened to it start to finish -- something I never do any more in the age of iTunes and shuffle.

And I suddenly remembered that it had been my boss's repeated soundtrack when I was building sets as a teenager at a local regional theater. Hearing the less-radio-played tracks of the album brought me right back in a sense memory to that time.

Do you have a specific memory attached to a certain song? Write back in the comments!

Meanwhile, Glad Tidings to all.

POST SCRIPT: After this "went to press," Prof. Charlie Rubin emailed me the following update about the nameplate:
I kept Charlie's name there because he was Mark Dickerman's best friend, and when Mark went to Singapore to run Tisch Asia for two years I inherited Charlie's office which Mark had inherited after his best friend died.  Charlie was beloved by the students.  He had a sign on his door that read STUDENTS JUST ENTER/All Other Please Knock.  His son, Will, might be the most talented kid I've met here (well, tied with 2 others).  I kept Charlie's name on the door because of Mark, and because Will drops in on me now and then.  I also thought it was a respectful thing to do. 

Then last summer they repainted the Department and brought in new furniture and one thing they did was scrape Charlie P's name off, and when I came back, a CR nameplate was up instead.  I had thought that was part of the point in keeping CP there -- I'm well-enough known, and still here, I didn't need a nameplate.  I wanted Charlie's name there.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Song Writing -- plotting NASHVILLE 209 through music.

Michael Lohmann's cool Orson Welles like shot of Layla crying backstage
When you write on a TV show, you only get to actually "WRITE" very sporadically. Most of the job entails being locked in a room with fellow creative eccentrics (ten, on this show) and bashing out stories while trying not to gain too much weight being forcefed lunch and snacks.

So when after the first 8 episodes, the spinning wheel  landed on me, I was READY. What's different about Nashville, and what I was excited to use as a springboard, was the music. Obviously, I had to first pick up "the batons" from the previous episode and move them down the field toward what we knew had to happen in the next episode -- an end of 2013 cliffhanger.

I needed stories that made emotional, narrative, and musical sense. (I also had a private agenda of doing stories that would bring as many of the myriad characters together, because I'd seen other episodes compress under the pressure of delivering scenes for so many storylines -- and besides, we were due for throwing awkward, secret, reunited and ex-couples Scarlett/Avery and Zoey/Gunnar into a room together.)
While music is the trickiest part, it can also be a great organizing principle. We have at least three songs each episode. With rare exceptions, we use only original songs (ie that haven't been made famous by recording artists). Our actors actually sing, we have to rotate who performs, the songs have to make sense in the story, and have to be recorded in advance and played back on set. Though you usually see only a minute or so on the show, full songs are recorded and filmed, released on Itunes, YouTube, and soundtrack albums.  While our cast doesn't tour to support them, we recently cracked the country Top 40 with a Scarlett/Deacon duet, "This Town."

So to answer the questions I've been asked by screenwriting students:
Do writers write the songs? (No!)

We have a weekly meeting with Frankie Pine, our music supervisor, where we lay out future needs and she plays us contenders on her laptop. The ultimate decision lies in the hands of show creator Callie Khouri, Music Producer Buddy Miller, and showrunner Dee Johnson, but we all weigh in. It's an exciting and scary part of the process because we're always up against time deadlines.

What do you put in the script? (Dialogue with XXXXX until the songs are finalized, usually during the last week.)
How do you decide who will sing and where to put them in the show? (I'll just use my episode to illustrate.)

I set about to reverse engineer my stories from which performances I wanted to see, musically and storywise. Two involved pairing up people for the first time, for selfish -- and story-- reasons.

1) Chris Carmack and Hayden Panettiere. Will and Juliette -- and the actors who play them -- are two of the show's most charismatic young performers and we'd put them on tour together, yet they'd not had a scene together since Juliette gave Will the gig pre-opening for her and the ambitious, scheming Layla. I wanted to up the ante and get them on stage together, so I cooked up a plot in which Juliette is threatened by Layla, demotes her, Will invites Layla to duet with him -- so Juliette trumps her by grabbing the mike. So their duet would not just be a musical moment, but a power play, even a flirt.

Juliette steals Layla's mike backstage.

2) Aubrey Peeples. Cast as Layla Grant, the up and comer Eve Harrington of the season, 19 year old Aubrey hadn't gotten a chance to show off the amazing pipes that won her the role. (No, it was NOT because she was in Sharknado). And when Aubrey visited the writers room, I learned she played guitar -- something that would distinguish her musically and visually from Juliette, and show her as more of a musical threat. I decided we'd open the show with Layla overstaying her allotted opener's time onstage by playing an encore,  provoking Juliette's wrath.
Lohmann's three cameras capture Aubrey
Callie and Frankie dipped into our pool of 100 songs and Nashville Songwriters and found two perfect tunes: "Tell Me" for Layla (<- click on the link for the backstory video) and "Can't Say No to You" for Will and Juliette. Both were shot on the same day, on our soundstage, which has the ability to be CGId into arena or even stadium. I thought it might be the hardest day of the shoot, but the crew has mastered how to shoot songs. Director Kevin Dowling, a veteran of dozens of episodes of TV as well as feature films and theater, had his easiest day. Our tireless, hilarious cinematographer Michael Lohmann had three cameras going, all of them in motion. Our guitar master Colin Linden sat behind the monitors to make sure handwork matched the guitar playing.
Video Village during music scene:
Cinematographer Michael Lohmann, Performance Consultant Colin Linden, Brad Stella (dad of Lennon and Maisy), Director Kevin Dowling, Script Supervisor Allison Hughes Stroud
3) Chip Esten and Lennon Stella (Deacon and Maddie). Another situation of pairing two charismatics for the first time. The Stella sisters, who first charmed the world with a simple YouTube video, are pure gold on the show -- people can't get enough of them. But the plotline of the show had added a wrinkle we hadn't explored musically: At the end of Season One, Deacon and Maddie both learned that he, not Teddy Conrad (Eric Close), was her biological father. This at first led to near-tragedy, but they'd been taking babysteps toward reorienting their relationship, and I felt it was time to see them actually sing together.

When my colleague Wendy Calhoun (veteran of Justified and Revenge) returned from the Nashville filming of her episode #204, she reported to me that the local hipster clothing store, Two Old Hippies, had a weekly open mic for teenagers on Sunday afternoons.

This sparked a whole story in my head. Being a divorced dad, I know the complications in multiple parental units attending a kids' event -- and this one had the extra oomph of Teddy being threatened by Deacon's paternity of Maddie. Throw in Teddy's new wife Peggy (Kimberly Paisley-Williams), who everyone loves to hate, and it's a powder keg. Drama is conflict.
Biological dad, step mom, dad, mom. Rehearsal at Two Old Hippies. 
I devised a plot in which Maddie asks Deacon to give her guitar lessons, straining her parents, and then escalates when she invites him up on stage. It was decided for story purposes to re-use the song "A Life That's Good" that the show had set up as an old Deacon solo song.  (Maddie had sung it with her sister Daphne after running away in Wendy's episode. )

My episode also has a bonus song, which my bosses and I chose from a bunch of songs we could afford rights to.  We needed the closeted Will to act out and get injured. The original pitch had been an homage to the roof-to-pool jumping scene from Almost Famous, but production exigencies changed the plan to a dive off of a bar.

So we needed a song that would motivate him to get up and start dancing and singing along. We chose Keni Thomas's "Gunslinger," which had just the right touch of dumbass braggadocio.  It was fun to add the lyrics to the script, and Chris Carmack was so into the scene that, even though they'd flown in a stunt double, he insisted on doing the bellyflop himself.
When I got to town I went to Two Old Hippies in person to scout the real Open Mic. Of course there were only a few people there (though as with everything else we show of the city on our show, that will probably change). The 14 year old girl I saw, however, was great, if unpolished. It made me feel happy I was giving the place some p.r.And in fact MaryLynne Stella is arranging for Lennon and Maisy to play there next Sunday.

Episodes film in the order that makes the most sense to production, not the order of the script pages, and the two big performances -- Layla's opener and Will/Juliette, an Act Three moment -- both didn't film until the 8th day of an 8 1/2 day shoot.

Even Maddie and Deacon's performance at Two Old Hippies, because of time of day issues, were shot reverse order: first the aftermath fight on the sidewalk, then the performance, and then everyone's arrivals. Brad Paisley came by to watch his wife film.

Even though the shop had to shutter for the morning, between takes the cast and crew ended up spending more money than a typical morning consumer crowd would have. We used the store's actual emcee, employee Matt Walbeg, a musician himself, as the emcee, and when his intro proved too short to cover a camera move, supervising producer Michael Waxman had him add the phrase "Home of peace, love, and rock and roll."

Everything came together and the cast and crew kicked ass. The three songs not only anchored the episode, but all three of them will be on Season Two's first CD of songs.


Episode link:

Song purchase links:
A Life That's Good (Maddie & Deacon version):
Can't Say No To You:

For more inside info on the songwriters of some of this season's songs, check out:
also follow and like: 

Nashville's Day in Court

Bill Myers and his unseen handiwork.
One of the busiest days on set for Nashville episode 209 was Lamar's appearance in court for a bail hearing, with Rayna looking on. We were downtown in a working courthouse (Nashville loves the show and bends over to accommodate us). There were tons of extras, awkward filming angles, a lot of important moments (it was one of the show's act outs).

One indicator of how chaotic things got: halfway through filming the scene, it was discovered that one of the flags behind the judge's head clearly said "STATE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE." Turns out someone in the art department had thought we needed a dark blue flag to replicate a federal court, but hadn't actually read the flag, or expected it to be more tightly furled. We ended up having to cut around it.

But one of the most labored over items in the court also does not appear  in the episode, so I wanted to pay tribute to it here. As I was surveying the scene, I saw that one of the extras was doing a courtroom artist sketch of Lamar and Rayna. It stopped me in my tracks -- it was really good. My reporter's instincts took hold and I asked the man about himself. And I was amply rewarded for my curiosity.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

"If I Read Only One Book This Year...."

I used to read a lot more. (I used to write more, too, but that's for another time.) Specifically, I read more books. After my kids arrived, I started reading to them at bedtime, and for many years that served as my book time. I sort of fell out of the habit, except on vacation.

And since the incursion of the internet, I have mostly been reading things I click through to -- newspaper, magazine, blog....okay, cat videos, too -- anything but a book.

Partly my fall-off has to do with the sense of urgency conveyed by the Internet. Also with my now needing reading glasses; I'm more likely to listen to a podcast.

 Colson Whitehead and Patricia Cornwell readers in transit.
But it's also about my lack of patience. Most of the things I read (or listen to) online, I can finish in one sitting. Books require the kind of commitment that I only get -- or afford myself -- on vacations. (I am not one of those hardy citizens who can read literature on subway trains or in Starbucks, grabbing half-chapters here or there. I need a purer environment.)

And my to-do list keeps piling up exponentially. When I moved two years ago, I shed boxes and boxes of books I had once read or would never read, or had inherited from my parents -- and still wound up with more than our new shelves could contain (and more than I will ever read).

2012 also delivered more than the usual tumult of distractions: I worked four jobs (five, if you count temping), moved back to NYC from L.A., saw a kid off to college, and of course there was all that stuff to read about the election. Meanwhile, I kept going to friends' book parties, buying the books, and piling them on a chair. I kept hearing about other books I "had to read" and would take comfort if someone said an ending was disappointing. Bullet dodged!

Before December, the only book I finished was The Art of Fielding, a nicely observed thinking-person's soap opera set at a smalltown college, revolving around a baseball phenom and his tormented mentor. I enjoyed it, but thought, well, that the ending was disappointing. It was a solid double; I still craved a home run.

Heading to Christmas break, I finally chose to crack the one friend's book I had been half-craving, half-avoiding: The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe, in which he recounts the final months of his remarkable mother's life as she's treated for pancreatic cancer and they both read a lot more books than I will read in my entire adult life, and share insights into books, living and, of course, dying.

"We are a pretty awkward society when it comes to talking about dying," Schwalbe muses two-thirds of the way into the book. "It's supposed to happen off-stage, in hospitals, and no one wants to dwell on it too much." What he's accomplished is an approachable, human way of discussing death -- even with the person whose life is slipping away.  As he says, his mother taught him "reading isn't the opposite of doing -- it's the opposite of dying." 

I was craving it because I knew their discussions would provide useful shorthands on dozens of books I might never get to; I was dreading it because I had both my parents die suddenly, in 2007 and 2009, with hardly any of the preparatory time Will had been afforded to make the most of his time with her.  And though I did get my dad to do his oral history, instead of doing it as a series of interviews with me, as I'd envisioned, he chose to dictate it at work and have his secretary type it up -- of a piece with his personality, which was always concerned worried about "to-do" lists and formal when it came to emotional stuff.

Will Schwalbe
Will, a former book editor himself who started the website Cookstr, is more of an acquaintance or Facebook friend (that modern term); we'd met through a mutual friend 20 years ago, he wrote a book with another mutual friend, and we occasionally run into each other. So however he presented himself in the book would be as new to me as if reading about a fictional character.

Soon I was identifying with all his inner torments: about his tendency to make superficial connections between people without considering the consequences, or to interrupt people with his own anecdotes instead of really listening and appreciating theirs.

Mary Anne Schawlbe
Rosalind Russell in a fur
In many such self-deprecating moments, Will is comparing himself unfavorably to his mother Mary Anne, who is, by any standard, a truly remarkable woman. After attending Brearley, Harvard and drama school in London, she went from working for theater producers (once wearing Rosalind Russell's fur and jewels back from London trying to pass them off as her own), to admissions officer at Harvard, to college counselor and then head of upper school at two tony New York private schools, to a late in life career as an activist for international refugees, visiting danger spots, working with lepers, amputees and mutes, and organizing a national library system for Afghanistan. All the while remaining a deeply religious person. Even in the hospital, she would see someone who couldn't afford medication and write a check for them on the spot. How could he help but feel inferior?

But in one aspect, Schwalbe is very much his mother's equal: he's an avid, avid reader. In bookstores, besides the usual happenstance ways we all find books, he adds, "superstitiously, I almost always feel the need to buy any book that I knock over."

And so when Mary Anne was diagnosed, it didn't take them long to hit upon the organizing principle to their new extra time together at doctors' appointments, chemo infusions, and the like: They would read, or reread, books, and discuss them.

The authors are as diverse as W. Somerset Maugham and Moshin Hamid and Thomas Mann (aided by Ritalin, she plows through Mann's 1500-page Joseph and his Brothers, one of the few Will, without pharmaceutical aid, simply gives up on). The subject matter might be the mind-body connection, spirituality, contemporary autobiography, or dated period pieces. They even read my friend Sheila Weller's book Girls Like Us about Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon. They don't always agree about the books, they don't always even like them, but they always learn something from them.

The lessons are both simple and profound, and worth remembering. They read Patricia Highsmith's lesser-known. partly autobiographical The Price of Salt, originally published under a pseudonym because of its lesbian love story. Mary Anne tells Will the protagonist reminded her, "When you walk around New York, or really anywhere, you see so many people like that young woman -- not desperate but still sad and lonely. That's one of the amazing things great books like this do -- they don't just get you to see the world differently, they get you to look at people, the people all around you, differently."

And Will extrapolates from that discussion why his mother always -- sometimes exasperatingly to him -- took the time to acknowledge nearly everyone she encountered: strangers, store workers, receptionists, nurses.

And his own book becomes the culmination of his mother's example. Seemingly effortlessly organized around chapters titled after just some of the hundred or more books discussed, it's actually an incredibly complex and life-affirming journey, exactly what one needs when one is feeling overwhelmed.

Will's whole life, his mother demanded prompt thank-you notes from him and his siblings, and tried to impart them that the thanking itself was a pleasure. He didn't get it.

Then in the book, when she's getting sicker, he starts trying to write her one for a Christmas present and gets stymied; he kept straying into what he thought was a premature eulogy.
What I suddenly understood was that a thank-you note isn't the price you pay for receiving a gift, as so many children think it is, a kind of minimum tribute or toll, but an opportunity to count your blessings. And gratitude isn't what you give in exchange for something; it's what you feel when you are blessed--blessed to have family and friends who care about you, and who want you see you happy. Hence the joy from thanking. 
So -- thank you to all my friends and family this holiday season. And thank you, Will Schwalbe.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sandy's Haves & Have-Nots

New York Subway map, post-Sandy
"How are you doing?"

That's what people from all over were asking as we weathered Hurricane/Post Tropical Storm Sandy.

Our answer felt kind of embarrassing. Because when the storm hit and divided the city into the haves and have-nots, we fell above the power-grid equator of 30th street. So all we had was extra vacation days, impetus to take long walks, and survivor guilt.

And I did a lot of posting on Facebook.

I mean, of course we heeded all the warning preparations.  I went to the local supermarket and CVS where people had cleared the shelves of bottled water and batteries and candles [right], but otherwise supplies were plentiful. Back home, we filled a tub with water "for non-drinking purposes" in case the power (and thus water pumps) went out, brought in the furniture from the balcony and closed up the windows.

Then it started to get warm so we opened them again. With nothing else to do but wait, we began catching up on back episodes of Homeland and Breaking Bad. I mean, a lot of episodes.

I went on Facebook to see the News Feed.  There was a kind of almost giddy energy to the anticipation, mixed with skepticism about all the dire prognostications.

People shared fun photos, like the one in the New York Times of Hasids gathered at the beach watching surfers before the storm hit [right], or the photoshopped tracking map that likened the storm's progression to its namesake in Grease as she got progressively skankier.

Others made jokes about how they were still finishing up their supply of Y2K crackers and water.

It started to feel like we had been hyped. By noon Sunday, city area schools and businesses had already announced they'd be closed both Monday and Tuesday. Friends -- especially those living north of the city, where they had no real weather change yet - starting griping. By Monday 4pm, all the city had experienced was some drizzle. Yet the subways shut down at 7pm, and the buses  followed at 9pm.

Sure, we heard the accelerating wind whistling through closed windows like a tea kettle. Felt the 100% humidity, saw the wall of clouds in the sky.  So we kept switching over to TV news to make sure we weren't missing something.

And I began trying to be useful the only way I could -- making my Facebook "News Feed" literally that, sharing updates both large and small. At first, most of my postings were meant to entertain during the endless wait, but soon things got serious.

Early on, local and national news reporters were mostly notable for their hypocrisy,

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Midnight for My Oasis

Living in New York City can be amazing or amazingly frustrating. Sometimes one episode encapsulates both simultaneously. That happened today, when I was part of a group of regulars who showed up for a last lap at our local swimming hole on the day before it was to close for renovations.

We never made it in the water.

First, the amazing part: The fact that the place exists at all. I'd lived in Harlem almost two years before discovering there was a beautiful community pool hidden less than a mile from my apartment.

After moving uptown, I discovered I could walk to the weekday summer lap swimming at Central Park's Lasker Pool. But what about the other 10 months, when Lasker returned to its Clark Kent alter-ego as a skating rink? (I hate running, barely tolerate elliptical machines. I bike and swim. I prefer lakes, but the city won't let people swim in the Central Park reservoir. Yet.)

The pool I thought was the closest, in Riverbank State Park [right], built as trade-off for the Hudson River sewage plant beneath it, took me almost as long to commute to as it did to swim my mile. It had difficult hours and closed randomly for things like thunderstorms and private classes.

Then a fellow Lasker diehard touted the Harlem YMCA, so I checked it out, but the pool was in a cramped room and on a different floor than the locker rooms, and the lapswimming hours required a spreadsheet.

I found the 1925 gem Hansborough Recreation Center  by stumbling on another blog -- 40 Pools, in which a "New York-based pool tourist" named Hannah Bergeson celebrates her 40th birthday by swimming in 40 different pools, along the way creating a kind of consumer guide for people like me. Membership to the city's municipal pools is just $150 a year, a fraction of what health clubs, gyms, or the JCC would charge. I headed north to check it out.

The exterior (above) wasn't promising, the entryway was a little dilapidated, and the locker room had seen better days.

But on the other side of the locker room door....

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Here. Now. The News.

Today news, real life and fiction, humor and pathos, whizzed around my head like a lowflying frisbee - or maybe a boomerang. I unwittingly rode past a crime scene en route to a job writing light news, then on my way home was confronted with reality -- and alternate reality.

I've been working this summer at ABC News, which when I was a kid was one of the institutions -- like the New York Mets, NASA, and Saturday Night Live -- that I clearly idolized, if my autograph collection is indicative.  I had glossies of the "Eyewitness News" team at the local ABC station, including (yes) Geraldo Rivera, who back then was not a joke, but a scavenger of real news stories.

But my favorite was anchor Roger Grimsby (left), whose anchor sign on -- "Here now, the news" -- ironically became adopted by Jane Curtin in the second year of SNL when she took over Weekend Update from Chevy Chase.

Grimsby was a cantankerous and bemused presence who, now, to my adult viewing eye seems to have been something of a drinker (perhaps confirmed by the fact that when he left ABC in acrimony, the network is said to have bought up some nearby buildings for the sole purposes of shutting down his favorite watering holes).

 I recently came across this wondrous clip of his improvisational skills when a reporter was caught on camera giving the director the middle finger.

The queen of pop and 2 NYFD hunks
That is just the kind of off-the-cuff banter that helped fuel the dynamic between co-hosts Josh Elliott and Lara Spencer [right] on Good Afternoon America, where I worked this summer, rising before dawn and working at the Times Square Studios. As much as we could script for them, the best moments came when they just reacted.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


The death of Neil Armstrong yesterday reminded me of my collection of autographed glossies of astronauts, and what a telling and bygone artifact they are. 

When I was a kid, I wrote letters asking for autographs to many people -- baseball players like Willie Mays and Tom Seaver, TV stars like Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett and Freddie Prinze, even news broadcasters (yes, like Geraldo). 

None of this surprises the adult me, since I have maintained those passions and even worked in some of those fields (I gave up baseball playing after 8th grade). But the astronaut ones are uniquely poignant. It wasn't a profession I ever envisioned myself pursuing -- instead it was the closest thing to a pure folk hero we had, and I can't think of a modern equivalent, despite the fact we've had nearly a half-century to improve technologies. 

For people around my age -- too young to remember when JFK was shot, too young to appreciate who MLK and RFK were when THEY were shot, our first National Shared Moment was actually a happy one, Armstrong's moon landing. How many happy shared moments do we have these days? (Bin Laden's killing is certainly not in the same category. Rejoicing over someone's death is not parallel to reaching for the stars.) 

I was 8 years old in 1969. I just looked up what time Armstrong made his descent to the lunar surface: it was 10:58 pm. My parents roused me from my bed