Friday, March 31, 2006

The Threepenny Opera

Despite being in a fair amount of physical pain last night, I wasn't going to miss Threepenny Opera at Studio 54. I can't say I was necessarily blown away, but this was also my introduction to the work, and I probably would have appreciated it more having known the source material ahead of time. That said, I still left the theater with the general feeling that it was weird but kinda wonderful. And reading up on the work by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill — which has a colorful 78-year history and was itself based on an 18th century satirical opera — has given me more of an appreciation for it.

The star performances were great. It was fun to finally see Alan Cumming live, after hearing so much about his performance as the emcee in Cabaret (on the very same stage, in fact). The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" item made much about the fact that he's bulked up for this part, but I found his "Macheath" (aka Mackie/Mack the Knife) to be a close cousin to the emcee, especially with the bisexual overtones and the casting of one of his flames, Lucy, as a transvestite. Singer-songwriter Nellie McKay makes a really impressive Broadway debut as Polly, and Cyndi Lauper, with exaggerated Queens accent in full force, mixes a bit of her '80s music-video persona with her more recent foray into songbook standards and cabaret-style singing for her role as Jenny. Both sing as well as you might expect, but it was a bit disconcerting to see Lauper forget some of her lines during "Solomon Song" last night. (With any luck, she'll have it cleaned up by opening.) The real revelation for me was learning that Ana Gasteyer of SNL fame can really belt, something Chicago theater fans would be more likely to know, from her run as Elphaba in the production of Wicked there.

The quirks of this show — including the opening up of the fourth wall, the emphasis on the unreality of the staged spectacle, the intrusion of on-stage announcements for each scene, and the LCD opera-supertitle readout that makes selective appearances throughout the action — are not necessarily anything new for contemporary audiences who are used to seeing such arguably postmodern techniques used as a matter of course. But they made a lot more sense to me after reading about Brecht's "epic theater" theory, in which the audience is encouraged to use reason instead of emotion as they track the action of a play, and the use of "alienation" is intended to force viewers away from tendencies to get lost in the action, so to speak, or suspend disbelief and fall for the characters, no matter their worth.

My main problem with this style of drama, however, is that it's often hard to tell when the show's being satirical and when it's being didactic. And while the show has its funny moments, it's not like the audience was going crazy with laughter the whole way through either. I have to admit I couldn't quite make out all the lyrics, but that's something I'm more likely to blame on sitting in one of the very last seats in the house than on the performers themselves.

Still, a lot of themes were clear: society's hypocritical treatment of the poor (including petty criminals and beggars) as well as the way striving and reaching for status changes people or makes people act funny in relative ways. There's a healthy chunk of anti-corporate rhetoric (long before it was in vogue), which no doubt dovetails with Brecht's Marxist leanings. This latest production features a congo line of performers wearing corporate logos across their shirts (Apple, Target, Williams & Sonoma, Yves Saint Laurent, to name a few), but I thought it came off as kind of cheesy — in the same way as the "Sony!" shoutout grated (albiet in a different context) near the end of the recent production of Pacific Overtures. (Tangential thoughts: Is it easier to make corporate jokes, whether effective or not, when you're a nonprofit theater like Roundabout? Also, is it a coincidence that Isaac Mizrahi designed the costumes and happened to throw in a Target logo?)

Even if you're inclined to agree with the sentiments, that logo moment is just not as effective or funny as Mack's later monologue about the dismal future prospects for "men who work with their hands," who — to paraphrase Wallace Shawn's very good but generally very R-rated new translation — use modest crowbars to open modest-sized cash registers to steal modest amounts of money. "Why rob a bank when you can found one?" is the oft-repeated line.

As this post gets longer and longer, I think it proves that the show is thought-provoking and worth seeing, even if it doesn't quite sweep you away with an escapist musical theater experience, like The Light in the Piazza, for instance, or even Sweeney Todd, which — while it also peers in at a seedy side of old London — doesn't make such an effort to assertively distract you from its more spine-tingling moments. I don't think I'll ruin it for you by saying that after the show is over, the audience claps, the cast marches off stage through the auditorium, and the supertitle screen reads "Go Home!"

Lastly: No, I didn't have any celebrity sightings last night, like Sarah did, when she saw the show. (Ethan Hawke borrows lighter, forgets to give it back. A few days later, his office burns. Coincidence?)

Thursday, March 30, 2006

God wants you to have that parking spot

Apropos of that car comment earlier this week about circling in parking lots, I couldn't help laughing as I read this line from a story about mega-preacher, best-selling author, and prophet of success Joel Osteen: "He is not shy about calling on the Lord. He writes of praying for a winning basket in a basketball game, and then sinking it; and even of circling a parking lot, praying for a space, and then finding it. 'Better yet,' he writes, 'it was the premier spot in that parking lot.'"

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

'The Bedford Diaries'

I can't say I usually make it a habit of watching TV shows on the WB, but this Times article about the series premiere of "The Bedford Diaries" piqued my interest. I never watched "Felicity," which was supposed to take place around NYU, so I don't know how accurate WB shows attempt to be when dealing with New York City colleges, but this one certainly raised a few questions for me.

I did notice what Alessandra Stanley described as "Harold Bloom's nightmare" — the seeming lack of academic content in the college courses depicted. The sex seminar looks more like a therapy session than anything else. No wonder the character played by Broadway star Audra McDonald, who only appears briefly in the first show, seems to be hounding the professor who runs the course for a syllabus.

But that wasn't all: If this is supposed to be the beginning of the school year, then why is there snow on the ground and why is the sun setting so early? It's supposed to be Manhattan, not northern Maine, right?

The two universities "Bedford" seems to resemble most are NYU and Columbia/Barnard. The rash of suicides in the fictional plot echoes the real-life "trend" at NYU a few years back, while the on-screen campus — in that the students appear to be walking around on a somewhat self-contained campus, other than one just centered around a city park — evokes the uptown school. I'd mention City College as well, but one bit of dialogue seemed to indicate that tuition at the school is high.

Another thing that I wondered about was the ethics and rationale behind the student newspaper publishing an article about the one professor's relationships with female students. If there is no rule against it, as one character notes, and the students involved aren't planning on filing harrassment charges, and each was of age at the time, then what's the argument for printing articles about it, beyond just warning innocent freshmen about the guy, as one of the two women suggests? Perhaps this will be made clear as the series goes on, but I don't see it. Perhaps the guy's a scoundrel, but that doesn't mean he deserves to have his private life revealed. And the headline they show, something like "Professor Accused of Sexual Misconduct," seems to imply that he did actually cross some line, either with respect to the school or the state, which would seem to contradict what we'd learned earlier in the episode.

And I know it's just a TV show, and they might not be able to afford "staff" for a buzzing newsroom, but why is the editor-in-chief of a major college paper the one who's out covering student government meetings, writing big exposes, and handling touchy ethical situations? Whatever happened to division of labor?

While we're picking apart the show, how about that teaser the N.Y.C. local news kept playing throughout the show? About real-life college courses about sex? If you're looking for a lame trend, how about this unfortunate, growing tendency of local TV news teams to turn a channel's entertainment content into fodder for feature segments. This isn't even as bad as some "stories" I've heard about, where the anchors and producers "report on" what just happened in some TV program or what's going to happen next week, etc.

One last item on the evening's topics: For the third year in a row, New York University topped a survey of prospective students who were asked what their "dream school" would be. When parents were asked what their first choice would be, Princeton won out, and NYU didn't even break the top 10. Hmmm. Could that be because NYU has gotten the reputation as where you go to school if you want to major in New York City, with a minor in academics? Certainly doesn't seem to hurt them, as the university "receives more applications for undergraduate admission than any other private U.S. school."


Normally, I don't like to vent in this space, but today was a really bad day. The pain that's been bothering me on a tolerable level every day for six months now got more acute, and I continue to feel helpless to do anything but suffer through it. Neither my doctors nor I have found anything that consistently suppresses it. I alternate at such moments between extreme worst-case scenarios and the fear that I'm doing some thing to cause the pain. On top of this, my new contact lens prescription is giving me grief: My vision somehow appears to fall in the middle of two strengths, and I feel totally comfortable wearing neither. I keep calling my latest eye doctor back to switch my order, and feel stupid about the situation. Do I need to change my order a third time? On top of this, I've been off-kilter ever since getting back to the city. Like I was away too long, and can't catch up with things again. Adding to this feeling is the fear that I'm being ignored, and I'm somehow a failure at maintaining good friendships. Throw in that looming tax deadline and the absense of a vital tax form, and you've got quite a stew of worry. I know, I know: Things could be worse; I could be jobless, homeless, family-less. I could be diagnosed for sure with a life-threatening disease.

Good things about today: It was sunny and spring-like outside, and I got to enjoy it for a few minutes before noon, after noon, and before sunset. Plus the Times had a special Museums section that got me excited about some new exhibits that are planned. I'm saving money by not going out tonight. I've got a ticket to The Threepenny Opera tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Rare comment on cars

I logged more than 500 miles in a rented Santa Fe, a modest-sized SUV from Hyundai, on a mini road trip this weekend. While I'm no expert on cars, I do know that this brand of car hasn't always had the most stellar reputation, but the company's products have supposedly improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, helping to increase Hyundai's rather paltry U.S. market share. And based on my latest experience, I have little to say against that claim. The car had some nice kick to it; it handled well; all the accessories and controls worked just fine; and it seemed to have relatively decent gas mileage for its class.

That said, I'm once again glad that I don't have to put up with the headaches of car ownership. No loan payments, no insurance, no maintenance, no gas. Plus, having a car again for a few days seemed to put me into a funny mentality: one where you put great importance on parking as close as possible to your destination, and feel cheated or annoyed by any situation where you have to walk any notable distance to retrieve the car. Our family used to have a joke about this as we circled the parking lot of various malls in search of a good spot. It's funny how such car-based values resurface so easily after not being in the driver's seat for so long.

Another reason I'm glad to be back in public-transit-and-taxicab land? Fewer worries when the motion of the car (be it a subway or an auto) makes my eyelids want to droop.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Unfortunate sign of spring

The crazed kids on their bicycles return to Tunnel Street.

Field of stars

Field of Stars
At the National World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington. There are 4,000 stars, about one for every 100 Americans who died in the war.

Helicopter, plane

As seen from a paddleboat in the Tidal Basin, Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Blogging break

No fresh posts ... till Monday.

Detail from the facade at 154 West 93rd St.

Today, the building houses the Manhattan School for Children, aka P.S. 333, but the facade still reads Joan of Arc Junior High School, and the elaborate carving still evokes that earlier name.

Radio celebrities on the subway

Last year, I wrote about seeing Brian Lehrer, who is only famous if you listen to WNYC, riding the subway. Today, I saw Bob Garfield, the co-host of NPR's "On The Media," who is only slightly more famous, since his radio show is heard nationwide. This time, after confirming in my mind that he was actually the guy I thought he was — the AdAge logo on his windbreaker clinched it for me, because really how many guys that look like Bob Garfield also happen to write for or be associated with that pub? — I went over and sat down in the conveniently empty seat beside him and introduced myself.

He was impressed that I remembered he's a Penn State grad, and when I told him how I knew — the jacket bio from this book, which also happens to have his face on the cover — he of course replied, "Oh, you were the one who bought that book." I told him he should do a talk on campus or something, but he said it's so hard to get out there by public transportation, and I concurred. I of course told him that I loved his show, and we chatted about one of the segments from last week's program, and he told me that the latest listener totals came in at 900,000 for the show, and that doesn't even count people like me, who listen via the podcast, usually while commuting. OTM used to be one of iTunes' Top 100, but appears to have fallen off the list as newcomers have broadened the podcast market. As he got off the train, he said something very thoughtful to me, which I won't repeat here, but which made me feel like he's a real stand-up guy.

The one thing I forgot to ask him about was why he always does that thing where he exaggerates his pauses at the end of the show while reading the final credit: "and edited ... by ... Brooke [Gladstone]." It must be some sort of inside joke, but it always bugs me not knowing.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

MoMA faucet

Even the bathroom faucets are made to look modern at the MoMA. This model is a semi-touchless one, although people (me included) often think that the handle on the left is the on/off switch. It's actually the soap dispenser. The tiny knob on the right, sticking up, is to regulate the water temperature. Other than that, you just stick your hands under and wait for it to notice you. If memory serves, my family used to call the similar yet simpler hands-free models "Disney World sinks," before they became ubiquitous. Yet this particular model still manages to befuddle, if only for a few seconds. And apparently, I'm not the only person to be intrigued by it. That's what happens in a modern/contemporary art space; you start thinking of everything as potential art. I'll refrain from posting the shot I took of the black couch outside the bathrooms.

Monday, March 20, 2006

West 184th St. and Overlook Terrace

Learning about the proposed but so-far-unrealized Fort Tryon Towers the other day got me interested in looking at the existing site again. Let's just not say it's not the most hospitable in terms of building. Check out all those rocks. If built, the structure would literally tower over everything around it, including, it would appear, the apartments up on the hill. The towers would probably compare closely — in height at least — to those ugly-looking apartment blocks over around 178th and 179th streets, near the entrances to the Cross Bronx Expressway and Harlem River Drive. At least this design is somewhat more attractive, and you've gotta give them credit for trying to make use of an otherwise weird corner.

West 184th St. and Overlook Terrace 2

West 184th St. and Overlook Terrace

181st St. A train exit at West 184th St.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Munch, Spanish architecture at MoMA

Edvard Munch exhibit at MoMA

After being a member of the Met Museum and N.Y.P.L. this past year, I decided it was time to try out membership at the Museum of Modern Art. Individuals pay $75, so I'll have to return three times in a year to make it worth my while, as the single-visit price is $20. Plus members get in free at almost all of the museum's film screenings. I basically stuck to the sixth floor this time, and had more than enough to keep me and a friend occupied for about two hours.

On Site: New Architecture in Spain, on display through May 1, is a must-see for anyone who finds the creativity lacking in most new projects on this side of the Atlantic. I was just floored by some of the awesome designs recently built or going up now all across Spain, from the most remote locations to the heart of Barcelona. It makes me wish architects working for cities and towns here could be bolder. General themes of the projects depicted, in model form as well as oversized murals and more modestly sized posters, are creating multi-use public spaces that aim to draw different kinds of people together for different purposes as well as responding to the existing environment of the site, whether rural or historically urban in nature. Even the public housing projects look exciting. I was impressed by one that consists of nine different "vertical neighborhoods," each marked by a different building material and featuring a separate entrance for residents, and an elevated cutout park from the 12th to 16th floors, added as a creative solution to city codes.

The Edvard Munch exhibit, The Modern Life of the Soul, is no less powerful for lack of a fully realized Scream. (There are prints of it, and works that directly precede it in composition and tone.) While some of the images on display are familiar, either from reproductions or from other museums (the Philadelphia Museum's Mermaid, for instance), so many of the works on display normally reside in Oslo's Munch Museum and rarely get out of Scandinavia. Munch, from what we can tell of so many early deaths in his family and failures at love, may not have lived an especially happy life, but he plumbed that despair to create work that is so rich and reaches into such a wide variety of styles. At times, he is like the late Matisse; at others, Cezanne; a street scene evocative of Monet; or a group picture akin to Renoir. I even saw hints of what would become Abstract Expressionism creeping around the edge of certain canvases. I haven't studied him enough to know whether he was being influenced or he was doing the influencing or some of it was occuring simultaneously, but it was neat to see him so confident in different modes.

At heart, though, his best works are the ones that seem like nothing except Munch himself. The motifs of death and the stages of life leading to the inevitable. The allegorical progression of womanhood. The desire for love and sex, and yet the giving-up of individuality, depicted in a work like The Kiss, where there is no division between the face of the man and the face of the woman embracing. You think of Rodin and Brancusi and countless others, but this one is perhaps the least erotic and most haunting. As a rule, I hate horror movies, but this kind of art so full of horror is just captivating, because it is not as much the gore or explicit violence of Picasso's Guernica or certain pieces by Velázquez or Goya (if I'm thinking of the right paintings), but the kind of horror depicted by the new production of Sweeney Todd. As Munch once said: He paints not what he sees, but what he saw. (And thus, felt.)

Sign of the times

Kids have probably been pretending like they were talking on the telephone to each other since the device started appearing in homes regularly. But the other day, I was walking down the street, and saw a little girl — she must've been all of 5 or 6 — standing by herself on the corner, no other children in sight, her hand positioned with thumb to her ear and pinky to her mouth, chatting away to no one in particular, planning some imagined rendezvous. My bet? She was playing Cellphone.

Wall to Wall Stravinsky

I headed down to the Upper West Side yesterday half expecting to merely snap a few photos of the horrendous line of people waiting to get in to Symphony Space to see a portion of "Wall to Wall Stravinsky," which was free (with suggested donation) and ran from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. But as it turned out, there was no line outside, and actually not so few empty seats inside. Guess Stravinsky doesn't have the same kind of popular appeal anymore that Sondheim did. The living composer's music was the focus of last year's "Wall to Wall" event, an annual affair, which I'd kicked myself for missing.

I caught about a fifth of the 12-hour marathon, and heard some lesser-known pieces, mostly chamber music and vocal works, that confirmed my interest and appreciation of his music, without making me run out and want to buy much of it. Probably the highlight of the portion I saw was hearing one Rachel Schutz sing "Anne Truelove's Aria" from Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress. I also liked hearing Ballad from The Fairy's Kiss (Divertimento), scored for violin and piano. Too bad the aria was marred by an overeager audience, who attempted to applaud Schutz twice before the aria was finished, a turn of events that surprised me considering the group's restraint during previous multi-movement works.

Since people were able to come and go as they please throughout the program, there was the occasional rustling of bags and jackets to contend with, and of course the obligatory cell phone or two, but the groundlings (myself included) mostly kept it down to a dull roar, and we were able to appreciate the cheap to free music. (And even nod off, if we chose, as one snoring music fan did so audibly.)

During an intermission, I happened upon artistic director Isaiah Sheffer, who can often be found milling about the audience at "Selected Shorts" shows and asked to shake his hand for being a part of that great childhood memory of listening to the radio broadcast of him and the stories on public radio growing up. I said he's almost like a celebrity to me, to which he replied that if that was so, he was the best known of the unknowns.

Pile of books, not my own

Occasionally, it's fun to deduce from a pile of evidence the kind of person who's just left the space you're now occupying. Like, say, sitting down to a coffee and Linzer cookie @ the Dean and Deluca cafe inside Borders TWC and finding the following books nearby: The Pocket Idiot's Guide to Being a Groom ... The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa ... How to Plan an Elegant Wedding in 6 Months or Less ... and tour guides for India, Turkey and China. Granted, this is a pretty easy puzzle, but my guess is: A couple who are getting married, planning a honeymoon in the East, and who also happened to hear a segment on "Studio 360" [audio file] yesterday morning, when Michael Kimmelman's art book was mentioned in relation to a piece on found poetry created from spam e-mail.

Speaking of Michael Kimmelman, who's the chief art critic of the New York Times, he makes a random cameo appearance (below) in the "36 Hours in Lower Manhattan" travel video the paper posted online this weekend. Look for him in the, well, art gallery scene. To his right is NYT arts/features editor Ariel Kaminer. His line: "Did I miss brunch?"

Michael Kimmelman cameo in Ariel Kaminer's video

Orchids on Overlook Terrace

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Buenas dias

One easy out you have, I guess, when the Jehovah's Witnesses come to your door in this neighborhood is to just plead ignorance on the language front. A pair of guys rang my doorbell just before noon this morning: The older one said, "Buenas dias," as I picked up the pair of English-language newspapers from my welcome mat. I didn't reply in Spanish, so he asked me whether I speak the tongue. I said no, and then he admitted, "We're looking for the Spanish people." You'd think they'd send out a bilingual team to avoid situations like this.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Roundup of stuff worth reading or hearing

» The great Hank Stuever in the Washington Post: "A Bicepsual Concept of 'Manliness'" Great story and headline. (Get it: flexing your manly "biceps.") I love how Stuever makes it a point of picking out all the "un-manly" details of the event. Amazing excerpt: "If you've ever walked around downtown Washington and struggled with life's big questions (Subway or Cosi?) and looked up at those bland office buildings and wondered what's going on inside, this is it: Pleasant little lectures about ideas that are too big to really scintillate, in books that go unread, followed by some politely antagonistic Q and some deftly bunted A, and then free chardonnay." Slightly related, although more positive on the trend: "In the Age of the Overamplified, a Resurgence for the Humble Lecture"

» From the Times' ThursdayStyles: "Write Grandma a What?" All about the declining art of letter writing, including this fearsome prediction: "It is not far-fetched to predict that today's young people ... may never again in their lives put pen to paper to write a personal letter." I almost feel guilty blogging about this, instead of snipping it out from newspaper with scissors like old times, and enclosing the clip in a letter to a friend.

» Touching Village Voice profile of a real NYC character: "Tonight at Six: Professor Alvarado." I've seen him many times before, below Union and Times squares, and snapped a photo of him and his beloved dancing toy dolls. Apparently, that kitschy touch with the dolls was the difference between him getting and not getting a spot among the Music Under New York pantheon of performers. Also: He was a real professor of music back in the day, and still gives lessons. I should've given the guy much more credit! He's definitely getting my dollar the next time I see him. But someone oughta tell the Voice reporter that it's Beethoven's "Fur Elise," not Beethoven's "F Elise," unless that's an online typo or a joke or variation or something.

» Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley makes an appearance on NPR's site, with a cover of "Handle With Care" as the song of the day. Indie icons Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service) and Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst also sing on the track.

» And of course, it was Friday morning, so there was another minor tear-jerker of a StoryCorps excerpt on NPR, this time a son with Asperger's Syndrome asking his mom the tough questions, like "Do you have any mortal enemies?" and "Have you ever lied to me?" It was interesting how the son, born in England but living in the States now, retained his British accent, even though his mother, Sarah Littman, speaks like an American. Click through to check out Joshua's hilarious "Family Guy" T-shirt! Hearing this segment was especially meaningful since one of my friends recently told me that her younger brother was diagnosed with this condition. I think I'm acquiring a Pavlovian response to these StoryCorps excerpts. The intro music plays, the hosts introduce the interviewer and interviewee, and then their hearts open and I can't help shedding a tear or two usually, because so many of the people who are featured give such honest and true answers.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Garden Cafe in Inwood

After a very long day, I relaxed over a glass of wine (Malbec) and dinner with A. at a new restaurant for me, the Garden Cafe on Broadway, just below Isham St., not far from the end of the A line. I had a delicious entree salad with poached chicken and mixed greens and black beans and a bunch of other wonderful flavors. So good and under $10. She had a similar salad, except with freshly cooked tuna on top. Then for dessert, I indulged in the highly recommended (by our waitress) warm chocolate cake: a sort of mini molten Bundt with chocolate-drizzled vanilla ice cream on the side. Soooo good. Then met the dogs, drank some chai, and walked up the twisty hill that is Isham Park for the first time, although not in that order. Just what I needed to take the edge off.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

'I'm an extraordinary machine'

» I downloaded a great contemporary pop song that WNYC's weekend guru Jonathan Schwartz has been playing a lot recently: "Extraordinary Machine" by Fiona Apple. It has almost an art song feel to it, and Schwartz always makes it a point of saying that Fiona is the sister of cabaret singer Maude Maggart.

» Also, a friend of mine turned me on to the music of Rilo Kiley, an indie band led by Jenny Lewis, a child actress who starred in Troop Beverly Hills and Foxfire. Some of my favorite songs are: "Portions for Foxes," "More Adventurous," "Accidntel Deth," and "Does He Love You?"

» Finished reading Black Hole, a Pantheon graphic novel by Charles Burns. I was pretty disappointed. The central plot line is that teenage stoners in '70s Seattle are accidentally passing around a sort of plague that affects each one of them in different ways. One girl grows a tail; one guy's face becomes disfigured; another grows a second mouth; another feels his skin come off in places. It's all very strange, and yet not as spine-tingling or scary as it probably should be. Also, the episodic way the story's put together and the way the main characters all seem to look so similar had me really confused about who was who and who was sick and who wasn't yet. There are some murders and dream sequences, but all of them seem to spend most of their time either drunk or high that you can't tell what's real and what's not. I wish I could say it were better, since I've had such good experiences with graphic novels recently — ones like Blankets by Craig Thompson, which was so gripping in its sweet, gentle, bittersweet way, and had me crying at certain moments.

» Also gripping: Kings and Queen, a French film that's been on my list since it was out in theaters. I'm only part of the way through (it's 2.5 hours long), but it's conveniently divided up into parts, so I'm taking an extended intermission after part one.

» Another recent download worth recommending: Idina Menzel singing the opening ("Kesa") from one of Michael John LaChiusa's recent musicals, the one I saw at the Public: See What I Wanna See.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Lamppost, 7 World Trade Center

'Tunnel Street' Update No. 4, or the City of New York doesn't know how to take a compliment

I have no clue why seeing a decently cleaned yet still dimly lit and semi-graffiti-covered tunnel from Broadway makes me so happy, but as I was heading to the 191st St. 1 train station this morning, I noticed a pair of men in New York City Dept. of Sanitation uniforms actually cleaning Tunnel Street. (See, I'm using its real, unmarked city-approved name now, without batting an eyelash, the irony slowly draining away ... I must be going batty.) I flashed a big smile at the workers as I passed, which I imagine is not something that trash guys normally expect from sane New Yorkers, but what the hey.

I get to work, I'm feeling so giddy and do-goody that I decide to dial up 311, which is the non-emergency hotline for NYC services, and compliment the city on its grand show of service to its uptown citizens. After realizing that the phone system requires me to dial as if I'm dialing from outside the city, I finally get through to a 311 operator and start giving my compliment-in-lieu-of-a-complaint, going on and on about how nice it is to see the city working for once. Then I remember that she just routes the calls to the correct person and realize I have to tell the same high-on-life story to another person — sort of how I've ended up outlining an ailment at the doctor's office first to the nurse, who doesn't usually write any of it down, then have to do the same dog-and-pony show again later for the doctor.

As the first woman at 311 transfers me to another woman, I can sense a mildly sarcastic yet not entirely disrespectful tone in the way she utters the word "compliment." So then I tell the second operator, the Dept. of Sanitation "specialist," the story of my nice and clean tunnel, and she listens dutifully, and I emphasize, that I hope this becomes a habit of the uptown crews, because it hasn't always been the case, and no, it's not part of the MTA's system, it's a city-owned tunnel, a city street at that. (Didn't she read it in the Times too?) And then finally at the end, she says something like, "Oh, we don't record compliments, only complaints." So I get off the phone and my co-worker, who'd obviously been listening in, says in all honesty that it was a nice thing for me to do. Nonetheless I'm left wondering if I'm a complete dope, and yet still I kinda hoped that someone somewhere in the great bureaucracy that is the Independent Republic of N.Y.C. got the message that they'd done good.
Another tunnel update [CS]
Power of the Press(ure Washer?) [Curbed]

HuntGrunt on The Bachelor

Joyce Cohen manages to connect one of her recent Hunt victims subjects to "The Bachelor" (Paris edition), a series of which I've watched probably 11 minutes, cumulatively, all seasons included. She ties it all up with a bow for those of us who didn't watch (just as she usually does in her columns). And be sure to check out the size of that massive cat the wife of the normal classmate is holding. Better watch out the feline doesn't start eating the human child's food and taking up her couch space.
Is the Bachelor Genuinely Nice or Genuinely Weird? [HuntGrunt]

Monday, March 13, 2006

Weekend wrap, (too) late Monday night edition

» Spanky's BBQ. Conveniently located behind the Conde Nast Building. Hanging with some current and future alums. Eating crab cakes, 'cause it was Friday, and I wasn't feeling the catfish. Somehow I convinced myself, after a previous bad run-in with the Heartland Brewery line of beers, that drinking PBR would be better. Sitting there with three cans in front of me, I wondered: Can one really claim to have standards by drinking Pabst, but not Bud? Fun times overall, although it's too bad they all had to hop on trains and buses and get out of dodge so soon.

» No time or energy for pancakes on Saturday. Alas.

» Measure for Pleasure at the Public Theater. Restoration comedy meets bawdy yarn meets Shakespeare comedy, complete with rhyming couplets to herald a character's impending exit. Playwright (too tired to look it up) knows his forms. Also amusing: the opening of the fourth wall for moments of commentary on the absurdity of, say, theatrical asides, traditionally indicated with the hand as impenetrable vocal shield. Memorable line: "Talk to the fan." 90% of the jokes were written easy-to-get. Some laugh-out loud, others just smile-worthy. Sappy epilogue and (SPOILER ALERT!) triple marriage at the end, with one-third being gay, of course, this being New York theater and the Public at that.

» Saturday night, late-night Williamsburg art gallery crawl. Forgot what a desolate section of town that can be. Guess I remember much of it from the window of my dear-departed (OK, "re-titled") Neon. Still fun to pop into various galleries, open until 11 for the evening and drink $2 Pilsners and read the art (lots of text-based art ... I could go on, but I won't ... not here ... not now) and the people. A woman, whom I didn't actually get to talk to, was in Pierogi 2000, wearing a costume/artwork covered in multicolored leather gloves. She was continually occupied chatting with one interested party after another. I was going to ask to take her photo, but some other guy whipped out his Treo first, and I didn't feel like asking her again, like she were some sort of jaded celebrity.

» Caught up with an old friend (via different spots in Pa., now in D.C.) on the phone, sitting on a gas station stoop. This was outside one of the Billyburg galleries where I'd bumped into a former co-worker. Could not place her for about half a dozen exchanges. Finally was able to place her. Was there with her City College art-school boyfriend, who apparently takes the 1 train north all the time, but never as high as the Cloisters.

» Barcade for a birthday party. What little talent I have at arcade games, happily Nintendo-deprived child that I was. Wasted too many quarters on Arkanoid, thinking the whole time of all those people playing it on their cell phones on the subway. Good selection of microbrews on tap, though. Not the nicest ambience I've ever seen in a bar. Blatantly attempts to attract the smoking crowd with its enclosed wood-bench seating area out front.

» I should really be in bed by now. Why am I on such a blogging kick? Oh, yeah, perhaps I'm just mugging for the camera after today's successful Gawker tip.

Not just the Essex House anymore

It's the Jumeirah Essex House, dear citizens of the world. Noticed walking to the subway along Central Park South tonight. Soon, we'll all just be subjects of the Emir of Dubai.
Dubai-Based Owners Touching Up Essex House Hotel [Curbed]

Sunday, March 12, 2006

File under: Just read the whole thing

Someone recently found this blog by Googling: "Annie Proulx 'brokeback mountain' cliffnotes." A little hint: It's a 12-page short story (and it used to be free online at The New Yorker's site, but no more). Just sit down and read the whole thing! It's one of those rare narratives that'll take you less time to read than it would to watch the movie.

After-hours Brooklyn line-up


From the portico of the Astor Place residences ("Sculpture for Living"), 445 Lafayette St.

HBO infiltrates sacred NYT wedding pages

I'm not sure whether to credit HBO for getting such an advertisement onto the same page as the Times' SundayStyles wedding items, or blame the newspaper for jeopardizing their standards and readers' perceptions by putting fake marriages next to real ones. No, the actor Bill Paxton didn't change his name and get married three times; he's just shilling for that new HBO show that premieres tonight. Granted, the triptych is clearly labeled "advertisement," but for a few seconds, I just thought it was a bunch of couples who weren't actually selected by the section staff, but wanted to buy their way in. For the record (or at least according to IMDB), the Fort Worth native whose nickname is apparently "Wild Bill" has only actually been married once and is still married to the same woman. How novel! Although, of course, there's another ad for "Big Love" conveniently placed on his actor page.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

On consumption, then and now

What I'm going to say is rather obvious in a lot of ways developmentally, but nonetheless: It's occurred to me recently more and more that the kind of media and consumption habits that I had as a child, or that my parents encouraged or allowed when I was growing up, continue to shape how I act when I'm on my own and can do as I please.

A few examples: As a child, I always remember the radio being on, instead of the TV. We'd always be listening to classical music (or the occasional easy-listening or celtic) as well as public radio, whereas there was a pretty firm rule throughout many of my early grades that we couldn't watch television after dinner. So instead of getting clued in to all the new shows — or as certain networks have taken to calling them, "fresh" ones — I was more aware of "Full House" reruns than anything else. It's not that we were never allowed to watch TV after dinner, and I'm sure that rule broke down at times, especially when we watched my parents' favorite genres: mysteries and British period pieces, often intertwining.

The other habit I've recently been thinking about is how I really got to preferring warm, purchased school lunches to those packed in brown bags. It wasn't as much a comment on my parents' or my cooking or packing ability, but more on the love of an extra bit of sleep in the morning and the preference for "fresher" food.

As a result of this early conditioning (which was not entirely my parents' rearing, but also my response to it), I'm less of a TV watcher than most people I know, and yet I love having the radio on, and getting sidetracked — lazing about in bed on weekend mornings, say — whenever there's some really great show or segment being broadcast. Radio listening is more a part of my morning routine (when I'm not blogging) than the AM TV shows have ever been. It actually feels kind of strange and different for me to watch "Today" or "Good Morning America" and the like. Likewise, I never really got into the habit of packing lunch on workdays (something I've been criticized for in the past), and am content to just buy lunch every day, just like I used to for major stretches of my classroom days.

The one thing that sort of replaced TV for me (although I still watch it) was the computer. I was never so obsessed with it, as far as I can recall, that my parents put limits on how much I used it. (We got our first one about 16 or 17 years ago.) So it wasn't controlled the way TV watching was. Keep in mind, also, that most of this development period occurred before the internet. Sure, I'd play the occasional rudimentary computer game, but more than anything, for me, it was a tool of writing and creativity. I "published" more than 100 issues of a personal newsletter during my teenage years with the use of the computer — it was probably one of my most long-lasting personal "projects." (I was always working on some "project" or another, whether it was typing up juvenile short stories or, when about 8, fixing the "wiring" with marker and tape underneath the living room coffee table.) So now, when I come back to my apartment, it's not the TV that I throw on first, but the computer: to read the news, to write, to e-mail, to IM, to pay bills, to move money, to consult the oracle, to blog, etc.

By explaining these habits, I'm not trying to say that one way is, on its face, better than another (although I'll probably admit that I'd save a few extra dollars each week if I just bit into the PB&J routine and liked it), but merely to show how childhood habits really do end up shaping what you're like as an adult. If I have children, I'm sure there will be a whole new round of media and technology (and eating options) to deal with. And frankly, that's a little scary to me. No wonder our parents were slightly uneasy about the possibilities of the changing digital world. At least our generation's parents never had to worry about cyber-bullying or cyber-exposure or cyber-stalking or hyper cell-phone use. Eek! I feel old.

Gallows humor

There are probably a dozen of these kind of archetypal jokes that define "gallows humor" by example and also happen to include gallows, but here's a one-liner I just heard on the radio: A guy is being marched up to the gallows, and asks the guard, "Is this thing safe?"

Friday, March 10, 2006

Worker bee

Public safety

50th Street and Broadway

Speaking of taxis

HopStop just sent me a promotional e-mail to advertise the fact that they've added a new feature that estimates cab fares for the distance between two addresses. You just type in the beginning and the end points and when they tell you where to go via subway and bus, you can also click on taxi fare and time. Based on a little testing, I think the fares are pretty accurate, within a few bucks and if you factor in a typical 15% tip. However, the times seem greatly exaggerated for all but the worst traffic situations. Still, it's a good gauge for how much you might want to pay a livery cab driver, since there's no set fares, and you either agree on something ahead of time or just pay them what you think is correct when you open the door and step out. (I've taken to doing the latter recently, and haven't gotten any complaints so far, as I usually try to tabulate the comparable yellow taxi fare in my head.)

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Reflections on the West Side Highway

One of the trade-offs of living uptown — in the cheap seats, so to speak — is having (or wanting) to take the occasional (or more-than-occasional) taxicab ride home at night from anywhere below 96th. And yet sitting in the back of a quiet, fast-moving car, while I can gaze out at the low-profile lights of the Jersey side reflecting their long thin lines across the Hudson, usually broken at least once by a commerical ship passing, is one of my small city pleasures. It may not actually be worth the price — I'm going to plug my ears and hum while you tabulate how much I spend on cab rides, but just imagine how long it's been since I've actually had to buy gas or pay auto insurance premiums — and yet it's not a bad little service to enjoy and it gets me home in a fraction of the time and with a little more scenery than usual. The pleasure was first described to me in a letter written by one year's intern to be passed on to the next, as a sort of primer to life in the city. But 9/11 intervened, my internship ended up being in another place, and I didn't get to experience what it was really like to ride home at night along the river parkways for a few more years, when I finally did arrive here. N.B. This, by no means, diminishes my love for the subways and the occasionally necessary crosstown bus, but even great, meaningful, lifelong relationships with public transit need space to breathe sometimes.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Gotham Bar & Grill

Ate at one of the nicest restaurants in the city with one of my favorite professors from college, who's taken a spin into town for spring break. (Remember that? I could use a spring break right about now, Cancun or no.) Needless to say, one of the best meals I've enjoyed in a long, long time. The wine, the food, the service, the atmosphere, the decor and of course the conversation. Some great pinot noir — while not the best I've ever had, still up there. Risotto — which I've been craving for a while now, with wild mushrooms and rabbit sausage. (My first ever rabbit.) Then organic chicken breast with root veggies and a truffle flavored potato side. Every bite worth taking and enjoying. Crusty bread. Lots of delicious NYC water, as my ex-prof noted. A magnificent and rich — but not too rich — chocolate cake cooled down by an oval of banana ice cream. Decaf cappuccino for me, swirled to perfection, watching the big-gauge granules of brown sugar sink into the pinwheel of foam. And six petit-fours, of which we could only manage ... four, being sated so well. My stomach aches slightly from eating so much — but in a good and satisfied way. The only sad part of it all is that such culinary pleasure and intellectual laughter and friendly insight passes so easily, like a quaffable wine down your throat, and then it's gone.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Rilly, rilly derivative

There's nothing new in SoCal. Count the references: "The O.C." ... "Laguna Beach" ... "Desparate Housewives" ... Orange County.

Thought experiment

I came up with a totally implausible but wonderful humanistic invention while riding the uptown A train today. What if they outfitted the subways with digital text screens to broadcast our inner most thoughts anonymously for all the lazy-eyed commuters to read? It would sort of be like Quaker meeting house meets bloggie comment thread. We'd all have little microchips attached to our 2025-era MetroCards and when we'd feel the need to vent or share a little bit of our thoughts with the crowded car, we'd just think a few pithy lines and they'd be broadcast for all to read in the space where normally we just stare at ads for exotic vacations, personal injury lawyers, and Dr. Z.

Of course, I have no idea how we'd be able to censor all the cursing that would likely come out of people's heads. But think of all the empathy that would ensue. Suddenly, we'd be able to stare across the car at that lonely-looking fellow human and understand what makes them tick. Random bouts of hugging would ensue. The peace quotient of the city would skyrocket. We'd all be a little more aware of what other people are feeling, thinking, hoping. Sort of like PostSecret (see below), but more immediate. Yes, totally implausible, yes, full of technological problems, but what an idea, what a way to spend a regular old Tuesday evening headed uptown.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Straus memorial, 106th St.

Choosy beggar update

The beggar I met last Sunday was back, but this time he was actually inside the church's vestibule. He mumbled out his usual request, claiming he hadn't eaten all day. And I told him that I'd offered him food last time and he didn't accept it. He made some complaint about how people don't wash their hands, etc. But I reached into my bag and took out the same bar I'd offered him the previous week. Once again, he whined that he hadn't eaten all day and once again I told him that was a start. And this time he very reluctantly took it from my hand, as I walked into the nave.

Afterward, I asked one of the priests who was bidding people good evening about what he thought I should do. The priest knew the man immediately when I described him. Apparently, he's been skulking around the church for years. "He has an agenda" was the judicious way he put it. The priest said that he'd tried to help him various times in the past, but had actually asked him not to come begging around the church anymore after he started scaring some of the parishioners, even apparently following a woman home once. I was glad I asked the priest about the man, but I was a little disappointed too when I heard the backstory. "There is no easy answer," he said.

'Bleak' elements, but a transcendent story

Just finished watching the conclusion to the PBS/BBC miniseries "Bleak House" from Masterpiece Theater, adapted by Andrew Davies, he of the famous '95 "Pride and Prejudice." I have always loved Dickens, especially A Christmas Carol, but this story was just sensational. So rich: With characters that make you care, especially the deeply sympathetic Esther, who is the heart of the narrative. With great lines and passages. With sharply rendered names. With touching moments. With heartrending ones too. With piercing commentary about the choices you make in life. With the notion that — cliche as it may be — we are defined less by what we're given than what we do with it.

If/when this adaptation comes out on DVD, it's a must-see.

Oscar results

So I was almost as accurate as I thought I was goign to be: 14 out of 24, or 58%. I was really expecting Brokeback to come away with Best Picture. And I didn't realize that Geisha was going to get so many of the pretty-type awards.

Columbia campus, Saturday afternoon

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The obligatory Oscar guessing game, '06

No money riding on these stabs in the dark, but since I'm heading to an Oscar party tonight, I might as well see how I do.

Leading Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Capote"
Supporting Actor: Jake Gyllenhaal in "Brokeback Mountain"
Leading Actress: Reese Witherspoon in "Walk the Line"
Supporting Actress: Rachel Weisz in "The Constant Gardener"
Animated Feature: "Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit"
Art Direction: "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"
Cinematography: "Good Night, and Good Luck."
Costume design: "Pride & Prejudice"
Director: Bennett Miller for "Capote"
Documentary feature: "March of the Penguins"
Documentary short subject: "The Mushroom Club"
Film editing: "Cinderella Man"
Foreign language film: "Tsotsi" from South Africa
Makeup: "The Chronicles of Narnia ..."
Original score: "Brokeback Mountain"
Original song: "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from "Hustle & Flow"
Best Picture: "Brokeback Mountain"
Animated short: "The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation"
Live action short: "Six Shooter"
Sound editing: "King Kong"
Sound mixing: "King Kong"
Visual effects: "The Chronicles of Narnia ..."
Adapted screenplay: "Brokeback Mountain"
Original screenplay: "Syriana"

And now my guess for how accurate I'll be: 63%

Vatican 2.0

Pope Benedict XVI scores 2GB iPod nano ... [Engadget]

Apropos of the O. Henry quote

One of my favorite classes in college was an American Studies seminar on Gilded Age New York City. It was probably the first time I started to get captivated by the city's history. One memorable class, my professor (whom I'm actually supposed to be eating dinner with this week) handed around an old picture postcard — the kind tourists then and now buy to remember the various buildings of a city they've gone to visit, in this case New York. It was from around the turn of the last century, and yet the large majority of the "famous landmarks" were either unknown to us or had long ago disappeared from our present-day skyline. The take-away: New York, while it seems to be fixed in our minds, is forever changing, and will continue to change. It's a city driven by powerful individuals, whether politicians or business people, who have always wanted to shape a bit of the place after their own ideals or at least their profit goals. Yes, of course, there are certain things that remain much longer than others (Central Park, say), but around them, there is always change.

One great example of this is this panorama, excerpted above and available in full here, which apparently depicts lower Manhattan from around 1900. As far as the commenters on Gothamist and I can tell, it's a photo that was taken from the lower Hudson River, with the north at the left end and the south at the other. So few of the buildings are recognizable to today's skyline watchers. With some help from this site, it seems that the darker, almost Florentine building at the far right is the G.B. Post Produce Exchange, now replaced by Two Broadway, home of the MTA, and not far from the Battery and the old Customs House, just out of the frame. Toward the middle are the buildings of Park Row, former locus of the New York newspaper trade. Along the waterfront are docks labeled Pennsylvania Railroad. As for how far the image stretches to the north (left side), it's really hard to say, but I'm going to have to guess somewhere around Spring Street, where the Holland Tunnel was built two decades later. Missing from the picture, of course, is the infill land that would be used to create Battery Park City. Some of this is conjecture, so I'd be open to any disagreement over dimensions and buildings.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Saturday pair

1. Isabella's on Columbus and West 77th, across from the Natural History museum. Delicious brunch spot. Very popular. Slightly pricier than I'm used to, but well worth it.

2. Spring needs to hurry up and get here, because I just bought an awesome linen suit at H&M and I will be wearing it soon.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Review: The Baxter

I was really disappointed by The Baxter, an IFC movie that had been recommended to me a while back. About five minutes into the movie, I could imagine what the whole plot was going to be, and kept waiting for it to happen already. And this wasn't like some halfway decent Hollywood flick where you do know the general direction of the plot, but you're still halfway amused to watch what happens as it progresses. It took the worst of indie films and the worst of Hollywood fare and put them together. The sad part is, I usually like quirky relationship movies like this. It was totally unbelievable to me that the main character (played by the writer/director Michael Showalter) would ever be with the women he supposedly dates. He doesn't seem to like them very much and they don't seem to like him either — in addition to them being out of his league. (I know, I know, the whole "league" thing is very dumb and high school, but this is the movies, remember, where casting is involved, etc.)

So the moment the adorable, shy-crooning, dictionary-reading Michelle Williams character (with the smirk-inducing film-reference name of Cecil Mills) enters the picture, it's obvious that she's meant to be with the main guy character. (I kept waiting for her close-up.) All the to-ing and fro-ing that goes on in the interim doesn't appeal much at all. It's just not very believable. And while Williams is a joy to watch, Elizabeth Banks, who did such an amazing job in Heights with Glenn Close two years ago, is reduced to a caricature here. You never really even understand why she's supposed to like Showalter's guy in the first place. Getting free year-round accounting services for her and her extended family doesn't quite seem to be motive enough.

20 Pine, Moran's, Back Room

A good antidote for the mid-winter doldrums: Crash a lavish downtown party. We did just that last night, witnessing the crowded coming-out of 20 Pine: The Collection. Open bar, hors d'oeuvres, people dressed more stylishly than us, and the odd celeb sighting. Upon entering, I saw Liev Schreiber (preparing for his turn as Macbeth this summer), and others claimed to have seen Naomi Watts and Nicky Hilton, but those were unconfirmed. Oh, and John Legend sang a few songs (fuzzy shot above).

Random moment at the bathroom: Woman #1 starts talking in Italian on her cell. Very good accent, probably native. Woman #2, behind me in the line, starts fawning over her. Woman #1 hangs up and #2 comes over to say how much she loves hearing Italian spoken, how beautiful it is (as if hearing someone speak Italian is such a rare, rare thing in this international city). The native speaker brushes it off implying something like Americans love to hear any foreign language spoken well. But #2 insists that Italian is so sexy, to which #1 finally retorts, "You should learn it then."

Before and after, we hit up bars that happened to have roaring fireplaces. Moran's at 103 Washington near Rector (in NoBatt, a joke of a mashup), just down the street from The Pit in the Financial District. Warm, well-kept Irish pub with a bar and nicely set tables. I had Blue Point Lager from Long Island for the first time and enjoyed the free bar snacks (a rarity, I've noticed, in this city) while our group assembled. Later: The Back Room, at 102 Norfolk on the LES. Down a flight of stairs from the street, along an outdoor passageway and up another flight to the lounge with a speakeasy vibe and a business card that says "The Lower East Side Toy Company" on the front. Bottled beer in brown paper bags (above), cocktails in white tea cups, dark-hued old-boys'-club furnishings, and a back-back room hidden by a bookcase and protected by a password complete the retro feel.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Dx update

Well, it seems that Diary-X is well and truly gone, taking with it all of our unsaved writing. I tried searching for some of my old stuff on the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, but came up empty. Dust to dust, etc. — appropriate for the day, I guess.

I was able to uncover journal entries by someone else on another site along with a particular long-gone nickname that has me sitting here wondering if I knew how happy I was back then, or how happy I should've been if I wasn't, or wondering why the me of today couldn't tell the me of then that things were good, enjoy 'em. Or should I instead be wishing for the me of tomorrow to tell the me of today that things will get better again? Or worse: the me of tomorrow calling to tell the me of today that this is as good as it gets.

Great site for word lovers

Doing a search for "sitzprobe," I came across this site called Double-Tongued Word Wrester, which spotlights new or borrowed words and phrases appearing in the language.


My friend Cait arrived in China last month to teach English to grade schoolers there, and has been blogging pretty regularly about her experiences. Recent adventures include a seven-station assembly-line-type physical. Check it out!