Tony Kushner (left) and husband Mark Harris
The chance to hear Tony Kushner speak again, a decade after his talk at Bard College, was too enticing to miss. Through a lucky coincidence, I also got to meet one of my few heroes.
I first became aware of Tony Kushner’s work when my wife took me to see the original Broadway production of “Angels in America.” We went to New York, checked in at the hotel we had booked for the night, ate lunch, and went to the matinee performance of Part 1. That part ends with a scene of epiphany when a man sick with AIDS is visited by an angel who proclaims him a prophet. I was so moved by that scene that I literally lost the power of speech. If Tara hadn’t been with me to guide me, I could never have found my way back to our hotel, just a few blocks from the theater.
Taking in the whole play in a single day might have been a mistake, since its impact was so overwhelming. But I’ve never forgotten the experience, which still ranks as one of the most powerful I’ve ever had, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. This might sound like an exaggeration but it’s not.
I got to experience “Angels in America” again when a filmed adaptation was broadcast over HBO. It was the kind of work that justifies the whole medium of television. I watched it on two Sunday evenings, surrounded by friends, and again was astonished by the power of this great writer. We had another showing a few years later, with similar results.
A few days before the broadcast of “Angels,” I ran into a novelist I know slightly. I asked her if she had HBO and she said she did. I told her about the coming broadcast. She said she was planning to watch the first hour, but it was running from 8 to 11 and she always went to bed at 9. I told her she would never be able to turn the TV off. She said I didn’t know her well enough. I bet her a dollar she wouldn’t be able to stop watching it. A couple of days after the broadcast I got a dollar bill in the mail.
While “Angels” remains his best-known work, Kushner is far from a one-hit wonder. Tara and I have been to see several of his other plays, including the more recent “Homebody/Kabul,” the musical “Caroline, or Change,” and the early “A Bright Room Called Day.” I’ve also read some of his excellent essays.
We got to see him in person when he was given an honorary degree by Bard College about a decade ago. The event was not, as usual, part of a college graduation but a separate event. Kushner performed in a brief one-act play, the title of which I cannot remember or locate. In it, Laura Bush, a former librarian, read a story to a group of dead Iraqui children. As usual with Kushner’s work, it was both funny and moving. Kushner, incidentally, took the part of Laura Bush. He then gave a brilliant talk, largely centered on current politics. Bard promised me a transcript, but it turned out that the talk had been completely spontaneous and Kushner had no text available.
When I received a flyer for a Kushner talk at Temple Emanuel in nearby Kingston, I immediately ordered tickets. A few days later, I ran into a woman at the Woodstock post office who was mailing out flyers with Tony Kushner in large type. I remarked to her that I had already bought tickets for the talk, but she told me that these invitations were for a “meet and greet” session earlier in the day, going out to a selected small list of people. I told her I would be interested, and she gave me one.
So it was that, through nothing but dumb luck, I got to go to the afternoon session. The admission price was $150, including the evening talk. But I don’t have many living heroes, and the event was two days after my birthday. So I gave myself a ticket as a birthday present.
The event took place at a private home in Kingston. While most of the attendees were admiring the view of the Hudson River from the back porch, or looking at the impressive artwork throughout the house, I realized I felt tired and sat down on a chair in the living room. Someone politely informed me that the chair and the one next to it were being saved for Mr. Kushner and Rinne Groff, the playwright who was going to be his conversation partner. OK, I said, and I got up and sat down in another chair right next to those two. Sure enough, Kushner and Groff arrived a few minutes later, shook a few hands, and sat down in those chairs, Kushner right next to me.
I introduced myself, thanked him for his work, and told him quickly the stories of my reaction to seeing “Angels” on Broadway and of the dollar bill. Then I explained that I ran a classical record label, and because I’d read that he loved Beethoven I had brought him some samples as a gift. “What’s your label called?” he asked. “Oh, it’s small, you won’t know it,” I said. “It’s called Parnassus.” “Don’t you have CDs by some famous pianist?” he asked. “Sviatoslav Richter,” I said. “Oh, yes,” he replied. “Those were favorites of my friend Maurice Sendak. He gave me one of them.”
After he chatted with a couple of other people, Kushner was introduced by the host of the event. Then, instead of circulating, as I had expected him to do, Kushner began a dialogue with Groff. He told some very interesting stories that were not, of course, repeated during the evening. Someone asked him how he wrote, and he showed off his antique glass fountain pen. “I like fountain pens,” he said, “because you can see the difference in the emphasis of the stroke of the pen on the paper. It shows how you were feeling when you wrote something.” He also explained that this particular pen didn’t leak or explode in pressurized airplane cabins.
As part of his work on a collected Library of America edition of Arthur Miller’s plays, Kushner met the librarian of the institution which bought Miller’s papers. The librarian told him of going to Miller’s home to help him sort through his boxes. Miller came across a batch of letters tied with a pink ribbon. “What are those doing here?” he exclaimed. “These were from Marilyn.” He immediately threw them into the fireplace, where they burned quickly.
He also said that he had been writing something about Sendak and visited him. Sendak showed him 70 volumes of journals he had kept for most of his life. Kushner said he would like to read them. “Oh, no” Sendak said. “Nobody else will ever read these.” They were gone when he died.
As the event broke up and Kushner rose to leave, he turned to me. “Thank you so much, Leslie,” he said, and hugged me.
After the evening talk, which was mostly about Abraham Lincoln and Kushner’s recent screenplay, my friend Judy Kerman suggested that it was time for us to watch “Angels in America” again. She’s right. But first I have to get to “Lincoln.”
The first thing you notice is
the smell of what they use to chase away
the smell of illness and decay.
It’s not pleasant,
like over-ripe fruit blended with dollar-a-gallon vinegar.
The lights are always on.
The hospital’s trust fund invests heavily in utility stocks.
When the power blacks out
generators roar into action
keeping blood flowing through the building’s veins.
If you want to get a nurse quickly
push the panic button
and tell her a light went out.
Tell your visitors:
Hospititis lurks everywhere
and drugs don’t cure it.
For five bucks a day you see on TV
the same blurry people from antenna days
still saying the same things
only now you can’t hear them.
The basic food groups are:
dry white toast
stuff that spurts out of needles.
Nurses come to get you up and walking.
Then they put you back down like a dirty sock.
Most of the nurses come from far away.
Some of them have accents
that seem to come from outer space.
Those aliens are the nicest ones.
The billing department always gets something wrong.
Then, months later, more bills come
from ghost doctors who died years ago
but still have good reputations.
Four or five or six or seven times an hour
a loud tinny noise gushes from a box on the wall.
It sounds like it’s squeezed from a rusty tube.
Are those words?
All in black, the chaplain walks in,
introduces himself, mumbles, smiles, walks out
just like he did yesterday
and will do tomorrow.
Today’s the day!
It’s like getting out of jail.
They give you back your clothes
but where are the $20 bill and the bus ticket?
Every month, reminders arrive
from the Alumni Association
asking you to remember your vacation
with a generous contribution.
We contribute them to the recycling bin.
This poem is from my “Dystopias” series.
This post makes my 52nd week of weekly posts. I had promised myself I’d do it weekly for a year and I did. Since I am about to get busy for a little while, including a visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival, this blog may become less regular for a while. However, I’m not quitting. And you’ll still get notices whenever a new blog is posted. Thanks for reading. –LG
Usually I don’t allow myself to have favorite artists? Do I prefer Bach to Beethoven? Or to Schubert? But I have to admit that Robert Altman is my favorite movie director.
This doesn’t mean I want to make a case that he is the “best” movie director ever. I don’t believe in such nonsense. I’d never say that Altman is “better” than Kurosawa, Keaton, Bergman, Carné, or many others I could name. But there’s something about Altman’s greatest films that makes me feel especially close to them, and that they do what I want to see more than anyone else’s.
Several years ago my local “art” movie house, Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, had a single showing of “Nashville.” I’ve seen that numerous times, but of course I hadn’t seen it in a theater since it was new. There is one glaring flaw in the film that gets on my nerves: the character of Opal, the British TV reporter played by Geraldine Chaplin. I don’t find her at all convincing, and although I know the stupidity of her reports is intended to make a point I think it’s too exaggerated to be plausible. (I hope.)
Aside from that, though, “Nashville” seems to me a magnificent statement of the state of American culture in the mid-70s (it was made in 1975), as seen through the microcosm of the country music scene in the city of Nashville. I’ve usually found that particular genre of music one of the few I don’t like, and I suspect Altman shared my opinion. As inventive as always, Altman hit upon the brilliant strategy of having the actors who play the roles of singers write their own songs and do their own singing. Some of them can sing, but only Keith Carradine could write a convincing song. (Ironically, it won an Oscar.) So most of the songs performed by these supposed icons of country music are pretty dumb, making in a subtle way a point that could easily have been overstated.
The interweaving of numerous stories in a single film is so much Altman’s invention that anything similar these days is immediately tagged as Altmanesque by film critics. “Nashville” was the first such Altman film to take on such an elaborate structure, although in a less complex construction it’s the basis of his first successful feature, “MASH” (Altman once stated that, although some of his films had lost money for the studios, they still owed him a debt of gratitude for “MASH” because it eventually earned a billion dollars for its studio through sales and TV royalties.) Other Altman classics like “Short Cuts” and “Gosford Park” have similarly complex stories.
“MASH” is only the first of Altman’s great films. Although “Nashville” might be my favorite of all of them, I might also love “3 Women” just as much. That magnificent, mysterious film, not one of his best known, is an exploration of the female psyche so convincing that it’s surprising to learn that Altman himself wrote it. Another of my many favorites, almost unknown today, is “Images,” a suspense story with a stunning shock ending which seems obviously a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, an early mentor of Altman’s. (Before his successful movie career, Altman worked in television for a decade, directing episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Combat,” “Bonanza,” and other series. In his mature career he went back to TV for several excellent projects, the greatest of which was “Tanner ‘88,” made for HBO.)
I’m lots fonder of “Popeye” than most critics seem to be. It’s a bizarre musical, with great songs by Harry Nilsson, and Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall are superb as Popeye and Olive Oyl. After that flopped, Altman had trouble getting funding for films for some years, and he worked mostly at making film versions of plays. Among those, “Secret Honor” is truly outstanding, with Philip Baker Hall as an amazing Richard Nixon. (“Beyond Therapy” is the only Altman film I’ve been unable to watch through. I find the Durang script unbearable. Durang didn’t like the film either.)
In the 1990s, Altman’s career had a renaissance. The post-1990 films are uneven, including such artistic flops as “Kansas City” (despite an amazing performance from Harry Belafonte”) and “Ready to Wear.” But they also include such masterpieces as “The Player,” “Short Cuts,” “Gosford Park” and even his last film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” based on the radio program and using some of its regulars (including host Garrison Keillor). When Altman died, he was working on a project called “Hands on a Hard Body,” based on the odd contests held by truck dealers in which the last person standing and still awake with both hands on a truck wins the truck. What a delight that would have been!
I haven’t been spending enough time with Robert Altman recently, but that’s going to change. While clearing out my collection of old VHS tapes I’ve found some Altman material I haven’t seen in years, including an interview done after “Vincent and Theo” was released and several TV projects including two one-act Harold Pinter plays (“The Dumb Waiter” and “The Room”). I’m going to copy all of the tapes to DVD and watch them in the process, and then I’m going start going through the features in a leisurely manner. It’ll probably take me two years or more. But what a trip that’s going to be!
When I was a young man, I became friends with an elderly violinist named Jerome Goldstein, a customer at the bookstore where I worked. I never had the curiosity to discover his distinguished background.
In 1964 I dropped out of Brooklyn College and married a whole family, a woman with three children. In order to support us, I took a job at the Strand Book Store in Manhattan, which was then probably the largest used book store in New York if not the whole U.S. While far from its present total of two and a half million books, it was already large enough to require a full-time book cataloguer, which I became. I worked there for five and a half years before moving to Ulster County in 1970, where I still live.
Any book store buying entire collections is going to wind up with nearly valueless books. The Strand disposed of these on outdoor stands. Several times I encountered an elderly man going through the 10 and 25 cent books with great diligence, and we got to talking. When he found out I was interested in music, he told me he was a professional violinist. His name was Jerome Goldstein.
I usually left work as soon as possible to get home to my wife and family. But Jerome started inviting me to visit him, and eventually I put aside an evening for the visit. He lived in a huge rent-controlled loft, just around the corner from the Strand, on Fourth Avenue. On that first visit I met Jerome’s wife, who seemed to be perpetually angry, and saw the pseudo-splendor in which he lived. The walls were crowded with book shelves and music shelves. A somewhat deteriorated grand piano was almost hidden by piles of tattered books and papers.
When I left that evening, Jerome gave me a pie in a box and told me to take it home to my family. I was suspicious of it, and when I got home I made sure to open it after the kids had gone to bed. It was moldy, probably given to him by a bakery near the end of its expected lifespan.
Jerome told me he had played with the Philadelphia Orchestra when Stokowski was the music director. I figured it was probably true, and it was; the orchestra’s website lists a violinist named Jerome Goldstein who was a member from 1917 until 1921. But he seemed like such a crackpot, although a likeable one, that I found it hard to take him very seriously.
One day he invited me to join one of his evening musicales. I had admitted to him that I played the piano but insisted that I wasn’t very good at it (the truth) and that I had neither the technique nor the experience to play chamber music. But I did mention that I played the first Prelude from Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” so he told me to come and play that and that he would play the “Ave Maria” melody that Gounod had fitted to the Bach Prelude.
I don’t remember that we had any rehearsal. When I arrived at Jerome’s apartment that evening, I was surprised to find a rather large audience assembled, at least 50 people. Jerome played some unaccompanied violin music first, and as I expected he didn’t sound at all good. Whatever violin he had played in Philadelphia must have been long gone, and the scratchy sound he drew from his cheap fiddle was hard to take. I suffered through the Bach-Gounod, which I didn’t like anyway.
I continued to see Jerome for another year or two, until he became ill with lung cancer. I visited him in the hospital near the end of his life, and brought away an image which comes back to me whenever I see someone smoking. He was lying in bed, feeble and incoherent, until he thought he saw demons coming at him through the walls. Then he sat up and started screaming at them.
After I left New York, I hardly thought about Jerome until one day when I was looking through a book on Charles Ives and was startled to see a photo of Jerome. The caption indicated that he had been involved in early performances of Ives’s music, sometimes with the composer at the piano. (As his private recordings reveal, Ives was a virtuoso pianist.)
The photo above is from an ad for a series of three morning recitals, with pianist Rex Tilson, given at Aeolian Hall (the place where the “Rhapsody in Blue” was first performed) in 1924. An unsigned review of the last concert, published in the New York Herald Tribune, mentions performances of works by Ives, Milhaud, and Pizzetti, giving “the palm to Pizzetti.” The Ives work was the Fourth Violin Sonata, composed in 1909 and not published until 1951. This was its premiere performance.
The Ives book also mentioned that Jerome had performed with Béla Bartók during the composer’s first tour of the United States in 1926. Doing some quick Internet research I turned up only one other reference to Jerome. He played Henry Cowell’s “Solo for Violin” (with pianist Imre Weisshaus) at a concert of the Pan American Association of Composers at “Carnegie Chamber Hall” (probably the small theater now known as Weill Hall) on April 21, 1930.
I’m sure Jerome was involved in many other interesting events like these. And I wish my callow younger self had had the sense to ask him about his career. I never did.
I was particularly interested in the play version of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” created (by another writer, Simon Stephens) from Mark Haddon’s best-selling book. I had read the book and enjoyed it greatly. And I didn’t see how it could be made into play very effectively. The book is told from the point of view of an autistic teenager, using his own highly idiosyncratic style and filled with drawings and graphics in his style. How the hell do you do that on the stage?
Well, for starters, while the book has an uncommon variety of appearances on the page, Christopher is individual only through his words and his graphics. On the stage, he can be portrayed by someone with a characteristic tone of voice and physical mannerisms. The opportunity to express these comes from the work of the novelist and the playwright, but without the brilliant work of actor Luke Treadaway they would have only been potentials. Treadaway realizes Christopher’s character, with his limitations and his strengths, in an extremely vivid manner.
And all the actors, some of whom play several parts, were excellent in this production. But the playwright, and the designers, also decided to use a very plain set and enliven and elaborate constantly with projections, graphics, and sound effects (sometimes deafeningly loud, apparently to convey the way sound impinges on Christopher’s psyche).
This was all very vivid and had a powerful impact even at the remove of seeing it projected on a screen. But, at intermission, I found myself wondering, why the hell didn’t they just make it into a movie? There are so many cinematic devices being used in this production that perhaps the producers should have gone all the way and put the frightening scenes on the train and in the railroad stations into real trains and stations and filmed it. At that point, my friend Lee pointed out that in the theater we have the physical presence of the actors, which came across even in the broadcast. In a movie, we know nobody is actually there.
I am not quite as naive as this may sound. I do know that even in the 18th century there were elaborate mechanisms for special effects in theaters. And I know about the elaborate settings of Broadway musicals (which can cost as much to produce as a movie). I’ve also seen the Metropolitan Opera’s multi-media Wagner Ring cycle. I just don’t associate such doings with “serious” theater. So maybe I am naive after all.
Without Treadaway’s physical presence, I don’t know if this play would have worked. It could easily have dissolved into a collection of special effects without a center. When I first saw “Amadeus” on the stage in London, almost 30 years ago, I had some of that feeling. The special effects, very original at that time, seemed to take over the theatrical experience. I liked the film version better. In this case, I know a movie would be quite a different experience. I suspect it might be an inferior one.
And in a film you would not have been able to enjoy the virtuoso “encore” (taken straight from the book,) in which Christopher, having postponed giving the audience an elaborate mathematical explanation earlier in the play, gets his chance to do that after the story is over. I don’t know how the hell Treadaway managed to memorize that scene, but it was dazzling.
Recently at Maverick Concerts the Music Director, Alexander Platt, introduced Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit” and mentioned that Ravel was a “great virtuoso pianist.” This is a common idea but it’s wrong, interestingly wrong.
According to the accounts I have read, Ravel was not a particularly devoted piano student during his conservatory years. What efforts he did extend were mostly towards developing his compositional technique, which remained a lifelong obsession. “My objective,” he once wrote, “is technical perfection. I can strive unceasingly to this end, since I am certain of never being able to attain it. The important thing is to get nearer to it all the time.” Ravel also made unusually detailed studies of the capacities and qualities of musical instruments, which resulted in his becoming a great master orchestrator.
Ravel became merely a competent pianist. He was unwilling to put in the endless hours of practice that would have made him a virtuoso, and we are all the better for that. Certainly it would be useful and inspiring to have recordings of Ravel playing his own piano masterpieces–if he could have played them well. But he couldn’t. He rarely if ever played them in public, and he never played his piano concertos.
Ravel is not the only composer who was unable to play his own compositions. Henry Cowell’s widow once told me that her husband did OK with his avant-garde piano pieces (some of which he recorded successfully) because they weren’t very difficult to play. But he couldn’t play the piano part of his Violin Sonata when it was recorded. There are many stories about how Robert Schumann ruined a potential career as a virtuoso when he damaged his hand using a machine intended to increase the independence of his fingers. But Schumann had never been a serious piano student and never planned on a virtuoso’s career.
In all of these cases, the composers understood the technique of the piano well enough to write in innovative and imaginative ways for it. I can sympathize with how this works. In my own piano playing days, I would sometimes read through such demanding pieces as Prokofiev’s Toccata or Brahms’s arrangement of the Bach Chaconne for left hand alone. I couldn’t have played these pieces if I had practiced them for years. But I was able to learn how they worked.
During Ravel’s lifetime there was enough demand for his music so that recordings by the composer would have sold well. This demand led to two instances I know of in which recordings were deliberately and fraudulently presented as Ravel’s own when they were not. Ravel’s only recordings as a pianist were as accompanist for the singer Madeleine Grey. He never made records of his solo piano works. He did make some piano rolls, a medium in which mistakes were easy to correct. But the pianist Gaby Casadesus admitted years after the fact that when the more difficult Ravel pieces were recorded on piano rolls her husband Robert had done the playing, and the Duo-Art company issued them under Ravel’s name.
Ravel wasn’t a very accomplished conductor, either. He made only two recordings as conductor, and they are valuable for their musical insights. (More on this in a moment.) But when the French branch of HMV recorded his Piano Concerto, with the pianist for whom he had written it (the wonderful Marguerite Long), they hired the Portuguese conductor Pedro de Freitas Branco to conduct the pick-up orchestra and put Ravel’s name on the records as conductor. The deception was uncovered many years later, in the company’s archives. (Freitas Branco was credited as the conductor of the “filler” on side 6 of the 78 rpm set.)
So what is the value of Ravel’s recordings? Obviously, the atmosphere in the song recordings is authentic, and Grey was a superb singer. One of the recordings of Ravel conducting, his “Introduction and Allegro,” is an acoustical recording, made in England in 1923. Its fidelity is limited, and the English musicians involved were probably not very familiar with the music or the style, so it’s not a great experience.
However, Ravel’s other recording, “Boléro,” made in 1930 with the Lamoureux Orchestra, is a revelation. Technically, it’s not very accomplished. Although the orchestra was one of France’s best, it doesn’t play with fine precision, probably due to the limitations of the conductor. But the musical interpretation shows us what Ravel intended in his repetitious work, and it’s not as boring as it usually sounds. Ravel was famously quoted as saying, “There is no music in it.” But the slow tempo he takes allows the scoring to sound in a most convincing way, and the inflections he draws from the solo instrumentalists are fascinating. Apparently the conductor Riccardo Muti feels the same way I do, because his EMI CD of “Bolero” is a close copy of Ravel’s interpretation.
Obviously a composer doesn’t have to be able to play or conduct all of his or her own music. That doesn’t take anything away from the music, of course. I do love to hear composer-virtuosi, like Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Sarasate, Leon Kirchner, and others, performing their own works. But I’ll never hear Bach perform and I still love his music.
In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, I used to make regular trips from Woodstock to Boston. My girlfriend’s son Greg was attending the New England Conservatory of Music; he’s now a professional guitarist and teacher. I would use his trips to and from Boston as occasions to make buying trips for my classical LP business.
There were many used record stores in Boston, the ultimate college town. (I believe it still has the largest undergraduate population of any city in the U.S.) I got to know most of them, and I set up priorities. Typically, Greg and I would travel up to Boston together. I would drop him off at N.E.C., book a motel room, and go to work.
I would plan my store visits based on the likelihood of finding worthwhile records and on the stores’ schedules, usually ending at one (Zoundz, as I remember) which was open until midnight. Then I’d get some sleep, be at some store when it opened the following morning, shop until I ran out of stores or time, and head for home. When Greg was heading home, I would take off from Woodstock early, shop all day and the following morning and afternoon, and then pick him up.
Some vivid experiences from those days remain with me. When I had available time, for example, I would have dinner at the No Name Restaurant, on the Fish Pier in Boston. In those days it served fabulous seafood in unpretentious surroundings at very low prices. When I didn’t have time for that, there was another good seafood restaurant in Cambridge, the name of which I don’t remember, which was on the same block as a used record store I frequented. Parking around Boston is difficult so making two stops with only one parking spot to find was a bonus. Occasionally I even had time to hear music, once a Boston Symphony concert.
I remember following the histories of some of the record stores. Sometimes they would become more popular, start increasing their prices, and fail. In one case I wound up buying out the classical stock of a store which followed that progression. Others failed because they failed to date and weed their stock, a procedure I learned and followed when I opened my own used LP department in a local used book store. An Internet search reveals that two of the stores I visited regularly, Cheapo Records and Looney Tunes, are still in business.
For some reason, when I think of trips to Boston, my outstanding memory is of the Claverack Diner. Boston to Woodstock is a 200 mile trip, and when I left Boston by myself at 10 p.m. or later I had a hard time getting home in one piece. There was always coffee available at all the rest stops on the Massachusetts Turnpike and the New York Thruway, but driving those roads was so unchallenging that I was always afraid of falling asleep near the end of the trip. So, nearing the end of the trip, I would leave the Mass Pike, cut south on the Taconic Parkway, and then head west on Route 23, meeting up with the Thruway only about 30 miles from my exit at Saugerties.
The Claverack Diner was at a location on Route 23 which was hardly a major traffic crossroads. Yet it was open 24 hours. As I drove my last hour on the Mass Pike, I would be thinking of the Claverack Diner, its harsh-tasting hot coffee, and its fresh-baked pies. A big shot of sugar and caffeine would propel me homeward for the rest of the trip, feeling better than I had most of the way. As diners go, I don’t think there was anything special about the Claverack Diner. But it was an occasional haven for me and I was always grateful to see it.
These days I travel Route 23 occasionally, heading for the Rodgers Book Barn in Hillsdale or for Tanglewood. When I pass by the building that once housed the Claverack Diner, I feel a little pang. The Diner closed down many years ago. The last time I saw the building in use it was a flower shop, and I think that’s closed now also. So is the business I was feeding when I stopped at the Diner.
To me, it was a straightforward enough encounter. The man I was facing had been menacing and stalking a friend of mine. Now he was menacing me. But I didn’t hit him.
I learned only recently that a poet who has become a friend of mine–I’ll call her V–had been the victim of a drunken and demented man who was trying to force his way into her life. He had been calling her repeatedly in the middle of the night, showing up in her neighborhood, and in a variety of ways carrying out the traditional perversions we’ve come to label stalking. Since he is such a dodgy character I’ll call him Dodge.
Although this had been going on for months, V told me about it only recently, and didn’t want to tell the whole story. She didn’t know at that point about my experience, for almost two decades, as a volunteer with the Ulster County Crime Victims Assistance Program. During that time I had spent too many hours assisting and consoling women who had been victims of domestic violence and rape.
That experience had given me some limited special expertise in dealing with characters like her stalker. It had also trained me not to be domineering. When a woman is dealing with a man who is attempting to take her power away from her, the last thing you want to do is try to force your decisions on her, which also takes her power away. It doesn’t matter whether I like her choices or not. At least she is making them herself. I made some suggestions and didn’t press the matter.
Before long, V decided to go to the police. They are now actively investigating the case. I am hopeful there will be legal action soon. But Dodge continued to show up at the regular Monday night poetry readings at Club Harmony in Woodstock. Last month, he read a poem which included V’s name. At that point I didn’t know the stalker’s identity. “Did I just find out something I’d rather not know?” I asked V. She nodded.
A week ago, V was absent from the regular reading. I called to find out if she was OK. She was, she said, but she had her grand-daughter visiting and didn’t want to expose her to Dodge. I discussed this issue with several of the male poets who are regulars at these readings, and we decided to form a posse and tell Dodge to get the hell out and not come back.
Last night, Dodge showed up. Michael, who runs the reading, asked him to come outside to talk with us. Two more of us joined them. Michael told Dodge, very politely I thought, that his presence had become a detriment to our gatherings and that he shouldn’t come anymore. “Oh, that’s nothing,” said Dodge belligerently. “This is my last week here anyway.” I realized he was trying to take control of the situation, pretending that he was in charge. So I stepped in with my own belligerence and told him that we didn’t want him to show his face again, and why. I wasn’t polite but I didn’t threaten anything.
Dodge raised the ante. “What are you going to do about it, you fat little fuck?” he shouted at me, walking right up to me and executing the traditional threatening chest bump. “I can wipe the floor with you,” he continued.
It was the chance of a lifetime. I realized instantly that he had put himself in a very vulnerable position. The others were already moving to pull him off me, but I could have executed a quick knee to the balls and disabled Dodge immediately. And I would have had witnesses that he had assaulted me first. (That’s what assault means, by the way. The phrase “assault and battery” isn’t redundant, as I once thought. The assault part is menacing, battery actually striking.)
But I remembered V’s request that there be no violence. I let the others pull Dodge away and did nothing further.
When the reading started, he got up first (he had signed up first) and read a ranting, shouting diatribe about love. Then he left. I sat at my table, eating ice cream, my hand shaking so badly I had trouble controlling the spoon.
I’m sure I’ll always regret missing the opportunity to strike out against this awful excuse for a human being. Instead, my worst attack was verbal: “See you in jail.” I guess I did the right thing. Being a Guy, though, I’m still kind of sorry.
The Woodstock-Mayapple Poets’ Retreat took place during the first week of August. I was invited to participate. It turned out to be a life-transforming experience, one I’ll never forget.
When I went to college I earned an honors major in Creative Writing, and when I started my studies I was hoping to make my living writing fiction. By the time I got my degree, though, I had taken a major detour in my life, marrying a woman with three children and leaving school to earn a living for my new family. I finished school at night while working, but the degree seemed irrelevant by then and I’ve never used it. Twenty years ago I wrote a novel, just to see if I could do it. When I was finished I was proud of myself for completing the task, but the typescript is still sitting in my filing cabinet. I’ve written professionally through my adult life, but most of that has been music criticism and articles. My greatest creative writing “sale” was $5 for a short story I wrote in college.
In a previous article I wrote how a series of bad dreams in 1999 propelled me towards poetry, which I had never written seriously before. Starting a new means of expression in my mid-50s was exciting, but it also left me feeling seriously “behind” and in need of help. I’ve gotten some wonderful assistance with my work. My wife, and a poet named J.J. Clarke, both provided me with much advice and criticism in my early days. My first formal poetry instruction represented “starting at the top,” two workshops at Omega Institute with Sharon Olds. She is a wonderful teacher as well as a great poet, and I wish I could have continued studying with her. But after the second workshop, in 2009, she discontinued her summer workshops at Omega. When I ran into her at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2010, she told me she had decided to reduce her teaching as much as possible, to concentrate on her own work. Even I couldn’t argue with that.
Last summer Omega offered a “Celebration of Poetry,” led by Marie Howe, with guests Patricia Smith, Mark Doty, and Billy Collins. It turned out to be very stimulating, but it was very different from Olds’s workshops, which were limited to ten selected participants. There were 91 attendees at the “Celebration of Poetry.” And for some reason Omega didn’t repeat the program this summer.
For several years, I have been meeting monthly with a group of fellow poets from my own area. We call ourselves the Goat Hill Poets, from the address of my former home where we started meeting. I’ve gotten tremendous help from my fellow Goats, who have done a lot to help me sharpen my game. (We’ve also become an occasional performing group, having great fun with our readings. The next one is in Woodstock on August 22.) Recently I started a second monthly meeting with two other poets, Jay Wenk and Judith Kerman, where I’ve been getting even more help.
Judy moved to Woodstock relatively recently. She is not only a widely published poet but also a publisher, running the Mayapple Press, with over 100 titles. A decade ago, when she was still teaching in Michigan, Judy started what she called the “Rustbelt Roethke” poets’ retreat (because it met in Roethke’s home town, Saginaw). Rather than meeting with someone of elevated status, a teacher, Judy’s retreat gathered equals, all successful, published poets, who met in small groups to workshop their poems. After moving to Woodstock, Judy decided to bring the workshop with her and re-titled it to include the magic name Woodstock.
When Judy first suggested that I attend this summer’s retreat, I was very hesitant. Although I know I’ve made a lot of progress since I started writing poetry, I wasn’t at all sure I would fit in with a group of professionals like these. “Oh, don’t worry,” she told me. “You’ll hold your own.” I was a little skeptical, but I decided to give it a try.
The retreat began on Tuesday evening with a picnic meal at the site, the Villetta Inn, a large summer “hotel” which was built as part of the famous Byrdcliffe Colony in Woodstock. We then had two hour sessions for the next four mornings with two or three other poets who would be our working group. Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, we also had readings of our work in various locales. I was scheduled for Saturday afternoon at a bookstore in Saugerties.
My two working partners were both people who intimidated me at first, Geraldine Connolly and Robert McDonough. Both are college professors and long-time poets with numerous prestigious publications to their credit. Both brought poems to work on which impressed me a great deal. I had brought problems, poems that seemed to me failures but which had enough I cared about in them so that I wanted to rescue them. Very quickly I discovered that Judy had been right. Listening in the focused way that develops in a workshop situation, I was able to come up with useful suggestions for both Gerry and Bob. They took my work seriously and gave me some excellent help.
In one case, for example, a sort of travelogue poem I’d written about a visit to Killarney, they helped me amputate about half of what I’d written by noticing–as I hadn’t–that the essential matter of the poem is about my experiences of music there. Some other aspects of the visit brought up in the poem might have been interesting, but they detracted from its focus. I was left with something that worked.
At the readings, too, I felt my work was appropriate and that I fit in. I got very good comments from others after my little feature in Saugerties. Best of all, I’ve heard from a couple of the people in the retreat, and I’m hoping to continue and maintain some new friendships. I had met only two of the others, Judy and one other commuter, before.
Perhaps the most inspiring person I met at the Woodstock-Mayapple Poets’ Retreat was a Chinese-American man named Li C. Tien. Li moved to America about 15 years ago, when he was already in his fifties. Since then he has mastered the use of written English so well that he has been writing poems in English for ten years and has had numerous poems published in fine magazines. I may think of myself has having gotten a late start, but Li will be an ongoing inspiration to me.
I’ll never be able to thank Judy and the other poets for the experience I shared with them. During this week I have come to take my own writing more seriously and I’ve become more ambitious. The Goat Hill group had decided collectively to push each other towards submitting more work, and I’ve already had a very nice acceptance from a magazine called Blue Unicorn (which has also published Li C. Tien). But I’ll definitely be doing more of that in coming weeks and months. And I am writing this blogpost, intended as a tribute and a gesture of thanks towards my fellow poets.
With fragrance of honeysuckle in the air,
water pumped over one hand,
a word spelled into the other
by her teacher, suddenly
Helen Keller connected
what she felt with its name,
and wanted to know
the word for the next thing she touched.
Then, the next and the next.
Her sullen face lit up.
Struggling to connect my words
with the world, the universe,
I remember the scene at the well.
–Li C. Tien
Blue Unicorn, 2012
This morning my wife Tara woke up crying, as usual. I asked her what is wrong. Some mornings she says, “I’m so mad at myself.” Others, like this morning, she just says, “I’m having a hard time.”
I know what to do at this point. I put my arm around her. I reminded her that we set out her clothing last night, and I promised that I would help her get dressed. This usually calms her down, as it did this morning. But she wanted to jump out of bed and get started immediately, so I couldn’t indulge my inclination to lounge around in bed a bit and wake up gradually.
I soon discovered that after we had set her clothing out last night, she had taken her necklaces–an essential part of the wardrobe–off the night table where they usually spend the night and put them on top of a skirt. I had to put the necklaces back on the night table so they wouldn’t be dropped or scrambled. Next I reminded her to take off her nightshirt before putting on the nice pink tee shirt I had selected for her last night. Usually it’s an undershirt but today we are expecting a high of 84 so it will be her only shirt.
Next I reminded her to take off her night pants, pyjama bottoms I got for her when she began to refuse to take off her underpants at night. I figured it for a security issue and the pyjama bottoms do keep her content at night. After they were off, I gave her underpants, quietly grabbing the extra pair she had set out on the large dog crate which she uses as her staging area for clothing. One of the dogs used to spend most of his nights in the crate, but he has since shifted to the bed.
I had left only the dress Tara wore yesterday on the crate, but while I was getting undressed in my room upstairs she got out two skirts and left them on the crate. I’ve learned that if I take extra skirts and put them away at night she gets very angry with me, so I had left them there. This morning I helped her select one of the skirts, then put away the other one and the dress despite her protests that she needed them. I assured her she didn’t.
Next we got the necklaces to put on, and I reminded her to put on her shoes and socks. Because she started last year putting her fresh socks inside her shoes, I do the same thing. Putting on shoes and socks isn’t usually a problem, but this morning she tried to cram her feet into the shoes with the socks still inside them. I had to show her how to take the socks out of the shoes, put them onto her feet–surprisingly, I had to do this once for each sock–and then she put on the shoes.
Recently she has been putting her foot into the shoe and then raising her foot, guiding the foot into the shoe with her hand and making sure the back of the shoe doesn’t get stuffed down inside. I first discovered this could be a problem about a year ago. One night she was getting undressed and when she took off one sock I could see her heel had been bleeding. Apparently she never noticed the discomfort. Sometimes I try to guide her into pulling the backs of the shoes back up, but this morning I didn’t want to be bothered so I just did that job myself.
After all this was finished, and during just a few seconds when I took my eye off her, Tara took her nightshirt and put it back on over her day clothing. She resisted taking it off, saying she needed it, but I managed to persuade her gently that it didn’t go with the rest of her outfit.
Tara and I walked into the kitchen, where she usually waits for me to get dressed and where I grab my small cup of coffee to sip while I’m dressing. (I set up the automatic coffee maker every night if I remember.) She called the dogs to follow her but, as usual, they didn’t come. I assured her they would come when we were ready to go out, and I went upstairs to my room where I usually get dressed while watching a few minutes of “Morning Joe.”
When I got back downstairs, the dogs had come out from the bedroom and were keeping Tara company in the kitchen. She had taken their collars out of the breadbox where we keep them, but she hadn’t put them on the dogs. Sometimes I lead her through this process but this morning I did it myself. Next she took the two dog leashes and asked if she should put them on the dogs. I told her we didn’t use them on neighborhood walks except at night, but that she should bring one with us in case Fluffy decided, as she sometimes does, to just sit down halfway through the walk. I also sprayed both of us with bug repellent, Tara complaining as always. I’ve stopped trying to explain to her about mosquito bites because she doesn’t understand what they are although she does scratch at them.
Our walk was uneventful, and so was breakfast. As always I fed the dogs first, then got to work making our breakfast, this morning turkey breakfast sausage and scrambled eggs. I put on our morning music, usually in recent days boogie-woogie, which Tara likes very much these days, but this morning Haydn Piano Sonatas. While I was cooking a friend called. We talked while I was cooking.
After breakfast we did the dishes. This includes Tara’s only remaining household chore, wiping the dishes and putting them away. Until about six months ago she did very well at this, remembering where to put a high proportion of what she wiped. These days, though, the proportion is down under 50% so I keep having to interrupt myself to show her where things go, and, once, to remind her to wipe a dish instead of putting it away still wet.
When we got near the end of the job, I washed and handed her a pancake flipper I had used in making the sausage and eggs. I showed her where it went into the lazy susan, but she couldn’t get it in because she was holding it with the handle up. I showed her it had to be put in handle down, and she said, “Shut up,” sounding very angry. I must have been more keyed up than I realized because I had a surge of anger and yelled at her. I’ve been warned by a couple of psychologists that this anger is inevitable in dealing with dementia patients, who are angry themselves much of the time. But I was sorry.
We had almost an hour left before Tara’s Friday caregiver Susan showed up to take her out on her day’s excursions. Susan takes her driving, for lunch, and to the movies most Fridays. I get time off to handle what’s left of my business, to speak with friends (lunch today), and to write things like this.