29 December, 2011

A Telegram

Shura returned that night to find him slumped in his chair, his head buried in one hand, a telegram in the other.

     "Mikhail," she said, “whatever is the matter?”

But it was clear to her—only one thing could cause her husband to bury his head so. Mikhail remained motionless, unable to rise to her question and so, allowed her to take the telegram from his hands herself, read it and know for certain: Gershom, wrote Rabbi Syme, was dead. His estate and entire amassed and untouched fortune, left solely to his nephew Mikhail, awaiting him, where his name still hung above the door.

Shura folded the telegram and placed it on the desk.

     "Mikhail," she said, kneeling before him and placing her hands upon his lap in consolation, "what would you say to one another now? After everything?”

     "My uncle would only ask whether I made money or not,” Mikhail replied, eyes fixed on the telegram now laying upon the desk, “That is all he'd want to know."
     "Come now, I'm serious."

Mikhail sighed and closed his eyes, not wanting to snap at her, but unable to utter everything swelling within him in a single explanation; the wicked, pulsing shadows of all that had occurred between him and his uncle Gershom.
     "When I first met you," he answered, "what I had done—far more than attempting to teach or proselytize or even simply survive—what I was truly doing was nothing greater than running away from home..." He blinked heavily, "...like a common, petulant child. I disappeared into the night on a steam train that carried cargo freight never to be heard from again.”

She beheld her husband and her heart roared. She scarcely recognized him— so contorted was his person with the recollections of a shattered youth. Not even labor and cold and exile burdened him more greatly than the memory of his uncle and all that had, and perhaps more crucially, had not, passed between them.

     “According to that” he indicated to the folded telegram “Gershom looked for me for months. But I am certain that is all he would want to know if I ever returned."

He stood and moved toward the desk, his shoulders encumbered with pondering, and he absently piled and covered papers (as he often did to protect Shura from the knowledge of his work), returning again and again to the telegram itself detesting every rush of feeling surging through him.

     “Money conjured up a fog around my uncle. It can do that to men. Some men. My uncle applied himself so—” his voice caught here, his words either being deliberately selected or stuck within his throat, “So passionately, I suppose, to the acquisition of money, that he quite forgot me.” Mikhail snatched his eyes from the telegram, and looked upward and out the window. “If the thought of me ever burst through that fog, then another thought crept with it: that I, his nephew, was merely an imposition.” Mikhail shrugged his shoulders, which silently told her things were better this way. “—And now I plot the extinction of private property and Gershom leaves me his entire fortune. Funny, isn't it? That. Neither one of us out of spite.”

She sensed her limitations and her insides wrenched. Goodness, Shura thought, acceptance is so broad a thing. She believed his peace.

Still, she noted how quietly he wore and wore a groove into the desk with his thumb.

15 December, 2011

Winter Reads: A List

[Cue: deep-baritoned voice over...]

Winter.

[Cue: windy sounds]

The dim days of earth's sabbath are before you.

[Cue: record scratch]

Did I ever tell you that my New York apartment is called "the Winter Palace?"
No?
Did I not do that because it reveals how nerdy I am, that I love AllThingsRussian so profoundly I have chosen to name my apartment after the winter residence of the Tsars of Russia? Well at least I am consistent. At least I faked left and swung left.

Here in the Winter Palace I don't rely on the calendar or the weather to let me know that winter is here. My winter traditionally kicks off with:
  1. A viewing of Bill Murray in Scrooged. (Because this is the one time of year when it is acceptable to view a Bill Murray film on repeat that is not What About Bob?)
  2. The setting up of my sweet lil' lopsided Christmas tree, as well as my portable menorah presented to me (from a big black bag) by an enthusiastic Orthodox Jew in the middle of Leicester Square 5 years ago.
  3. An attempt or two at making the best of watching winter sports on television (Because sometimes you have been taken hostage. Or are tied to a pole. And forced to watch curling).
  4. A Google Image search for "Peppermint Schnapps Office Drunk-Fest." (Because there may not be snow on the ground but there is always time for a pointless Google search featuring the non-word "fest"...)
  5. Preparing the sofa for me to be curled up within it all winter long. And beneath a snuggle-y duvet, I shall be curled around a book.
[Cue: Tchaikovsky's Waltz of the Snowflakes


aaaaand Cue:

: : :::Snow::: : :]

It is winter.
You will be cold.
You will, at times, be housebound.
You will sip delicious hot beverages.
You will endure terrible winter sporting events on television (if you are dating anyone from Minnesota...)
You will warm your apartment with the oven in desperation (because central heating is sooo un-New York).
You will catch The Latest Animal Flu and give it to your friends.
But you will have books.
And a good book on a winter's day will make your heart warm, your imagination alive, and your afternoons waaay better than enduring a viewing of the Nordic Combined (because your cable has inevitably gone out...)

Here are some winter reading suggestions, for the only season that begins with "WIN."

*

original cover. nice.
1. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

I won't bother to go on and on (and on) about The Narnian Order Debate again.

[pause]

...But I will passive-aggressively say that this FIRST novel in The Chronicles of Narnia is winter reading perfection:
a snow-laden magical land
discovered in the back of a wardrobe
that leads to the adventure of a lifetime
for four young children
in war-torn England.
...
Come on.
Break out the Turkish Delight, pour a hot cocoa and get to it.
There are talking animals,
an evil Snow Queen with both a carriage and a bone to pick with Goodness (not to mention an endless supply of poison brain-washing candy),
a war against Evil
and a journey home.

If you have only seen any of the (lovely) film adaptations, you are missing out. Go get it right now (and make certain you love the cover because there are many to choose from, some far better than others, and honestly? it matters...)

I also want to say this for good measure:
I am not a person of particular religion, but I am a person of great individual (though unspecified) faith, and despite the ownership the religious community finds in these stories (which I do not, and I encourage all of you to not begrudge, for they were written by a beautiful man of great faith), I admit that I never connected to them on that level.
     As a little girl and as an adult, I relate to Narnia on the level of an inquisitive child whose life was happy, but not without a constant, low, sonorous note of tumult represented by my father's illness. This allowed me to identify greatly with the Penvesies—who were happy children surrounded by great unrest in their country and their world, much as we are today.
     Full of hope, I was always ready for a fairy tale that fostered a faith in myself more profoundly  than in any particular Deity, and encourage anyone else to mine The Chronicles of Narnia for more than what is "on the label."
     My point for religious and secular readers alike is this: just as traveling to Rome, to Italy, to Europe itself, is not merely about a trip to the Vatican, a trip to Narnia is as fulfilling and rich as we have the vision and openness for it it to be.
Narnia is for us all.
"But what does it all mean?" asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.
"It means," said Aslan, "that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation."

2. Little Women 
by Louisa May Alcott

Ah! One of my favorite Christmases in literary history begins on page one: sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March are discussing what they might buy themselves for Christmas if they only had the means (as the March family did in the days before their father went into the Civil War), only to remember all the things they could give to their selfless mother, Marmy.

But of course, Little Women is one of the most beloved books of all time, chronicling the four inextinguishable March sisters as they struggle through poverty, miss their soldiering father, and cope with the harsh realities of life as they grow up in an often frigid New England (in both literal and social climate). Louisa May Alcott based much of this story on events and people in her own life and the prose, dialogue and swollen feeling that drapes each character she describes (and clearly loves) is as endearing and readable as it is passionate.


3. Rebecca
by Daphne DuMarier

Rebecca is a novel by Daphne du Maurier. When Rebecca was published in 1938, du Maurier became – to her great surprise – one of the most popular authors of the day. Rebecca is considered to be one of her best works.

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" is the book's famous opening line, and from here its unnamed narrator reminisces about her past. It is evident at the beginning of the novel that Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter now live in some foreign exile. The events recounted in the book are in essence a flashback of the narrator's life at Manderley.

Its heroine, symbolically nameless, comes to Manderley and finds herself competing with the ghost of her husband's dead wife. The heroine has recently become "Mrs. de Winter," but Rebecca was "Mrs. de Winter" first, and the novel shows us the heroine's attempts to escape the dead wife's shadow, even as the sinister servant Mrs. Danvers dresses her in Rebecca's clothes and urges her to kill herself and leave the house to the ghost...come on. Why haven't you already started?

Rebecca is a classic of modern Gothic and psychological, and suspense literature. Gothic fiction is characterized by picturesque settings, an atmosphere of mystery and terror, and a hint of violence and the supernatural; Rebecca exemplifies the genre. The action takes place in the hallowed mansion of Manderley; the book encompasses a murder, a terrible fire, and features a sinister servant; finally, the entire story is pervaded by the unquiet ghost of Rebecca herself.

Plus, in typically Gothic fashion, the weather mirrors the characters' moods (which is why it makes the Winter list!): a fog descends when the heroine is confused and depressed; Maxim kills Rebecca on the night of a terrible storm. A mansion consumed by fire? The (Freudian field-day) romance between an older man and a younger woman? The lurking, secret-enshrouded presence of a first wife? 19th Century fiction heaven! This story comes full circle, bringing us back to the present where we began, having been led us on a Gothic adventure of psychological and supernatural intrigue.
Read it.


4. If on a winter's night a traveler
by Italo Calvino

Let's talk for a moment abouta little literary function called the second-person narrative.

Okay. It is a narrative mode (not the story itself, but the way in which a story is told) where the protagonist or another main character is referred to by use of personal pronouns ("I," "They," and all other substitutes for proper nouns) in the second-person, giving the impression that you are being simultaneously addressed directly by the narrator, as well as being in the shoes of the narrator themselves.

Traditionally, the employment of the second-person form in literary fiction has not been as prevalent as the corresponding first-person and third-person forms. 
Here is a little chart:

Personal Pronouns
Pronouns
Nominative Case
Objective Case
Possessive Case
1st Person
I, we
me, us
my, mine, our, ours
2nd Person
you
you
your, yours
3rd Person
he, she, it, they
him, her, it, them
his, her, hers, it, their, theirs


In Second Person Narrative the narrator does NOT speak of themselves as in First Person Narrative ("Last night I dreamed of Manderley again..." - from Daphne DuMarier's previously mentioned Rebecca)
or in the uninvolved entity of the Third Person Narrative ("When Jane and Elizabeth were alone, the former, who had been cautious in her praise of Mr. Bingley before, expressed to her sister how very much she admired him." - from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice)
Second Person Narrative has the quality of addressing you directly, and though not as popular in literary fiction, is hugely prevalent in other literature such as in the case of a "How To" book, guide books, song lyrics, self-help books, do-it-yourself manuals, interactive fiction, role-playing games, and advertisements. ("You have alertly seized your opportunities and are now on the first rung of the ladder..." - from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying)

Al, I hear you asking, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?

Second Person Narrative is rare in fiction and this is 'SPN' at its finest. Calvino shows that the novel is capable of endless mutations. If on a winter's night a traveler turns out to be not one novel but ten, each with a different plot, style, ambiance, and author.

The narrative is about a reader trying to read a book called If on a winter's night a traveler.
That's right.
You heard me.
The book is about a person attempting to complete the task you yourself are currently attempting to complete as your are reading it.
... freaky... 

But wait, there's more! In this "playful postmodernist puzzle" described by The Telegraph (in one of it's "100 novels everyone should read" list)
Every odd-numbered chapter is in the second person, and tells the reader what he is doing in preparation for reading the next chapter.
The even-numbered chapters are all single chapters from whichever book the reader is trying to read.

Trust me: it is weird and wonderful innovative contemporary fiction, and full of magic.


5. The Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov

Look.
People.
     . . . Comrades:
Winter is clearly the most opportune time to spend curled around a juicy piece of Russian Lit-- and truly Russian Lit could be its very own post. You all know how I *feel* about allthingsrussian (reiterated in the nerd-faced naming of my apartment) so you have to understand how seriously I took this singular selection. I could use this spot to ask you why-the-heck have you not yet read Anna Karenina? Or stuff quote after quote of the humanity and whimsey of Gogol down your throat like a rancid Soviet potato ration. I could melt your hair with the heat of my passion for the gorgeous prose of Pasternak. I could shove Pushkin's poetry in your face...Push-kin would, quite literally, come to Shove...kin... (...sorry...)

Regardless, Comrades!
None of it could compare to the weight of my insistence that (she cringes slightly) if you read no other piece of Russian literature in your entire life, you must make certain it is The Master and Margarita. (But... that said, please read more. Please. I am certain my best friend Arielle who also loves allthingsrussian--including if not especially her Russian literature professor husband-- would be happy to make you a reading list even more insanely detailed than this one.)

The Master and Margarita (Мастер и Маргарита), is a novel by the great Mikhail Bulgakov which he began writing in 1928 and which was finally published by his widow in 1966, twenty-six years after his death, led to an international appreciation of his work. (In fact: Bulgakov had to rewrite the novel from memory after he burned the draft manuscript of this novel, and a destroyed manuscript of the original is an important element of the plot.) Initially banned by the Soviets, it is now regarded as a classic of Russian Literature, and many critics consider the book to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

Its plot, woven around the premise of a visit by The Devil to a (fervently atheistic) 1930s Moscow in the Soviet Union. The premise was considered to be too far a departure from socialist realism (the state approved mode of writing. Fancy that.) But below the twisty, windy, delightfully bizarre-o plot, this great work is a withering critique of Soviet society and its literary establishment.

Thanks to picturesque descriptions (especially of old Jerusalem), lyrical fragments and outlandish "no rules" style,  the piece is appreciated far beyond it's philosophical undertones, transcending to a soaring example of "out-there," psychological, brain-melting storytelling, sardonic wit, high artistic flourish, as well as a pure literary technical prowess.

A frame narrative structure (a technique characteristic to story-within-a-story formats such as in The Princess Bride, for example, where a main narrative is presented for the purpose of setting the stage for a more emphasized second narrative), involves two characteristically related time periods and/or plot lines. In the case of The Master and Margarita: a retelling of the gospels alongside a description of contemporary Moscow.

In what I consider to be perhaps the most stunning opening chapter of any novel I have ever read,
the story begins in 1930s Moscow with two men, a literary publisher and a young poet, traversing the Patriot Ponds, only to be visited by a mysterious (and deeply creepy) "foreigner"  who confidently joins a conversation between the two men as they debate the existence of Jesus Christ and the Devil...the latter whom the Foreigner seems all too familiar with...

The narrative quickly evolves into an all-embracing indictment of the corruption, greed, narrow-mindedness, and widespread paranoia of Soviet Russia, with grit and character portraits worthy of a Scorcese film, and mind-bending phantasmagoric twists worthy of Charlie Kaufman (that I cannot chronicle here without 400+ spoiler alerts, so I will not). Why do I use cinematic parallels you ask? Because The Master and Margarita possesses dramatically cinematic scope, and all written the year after talking pictures were invented. You will fly over the USSR at midnight. You will meet a motley crew of subversive weirdos (which, among other things, includes a Puss-in-Boots-type gun slinging pussy cat), and go back in time to visit with Pontius Pilate of old Jerusalem. Bulgakov exploits art's capacity to give life to the unfathomable, the illogical, while simultaneously reminding us of art's parallel capacity to fulfill dreams. The results elicit terror, laughter, sadness, and wonder.

Published more than 25 years after Bulgakov's death, and more than ten years after Stalin's, the novel firmly secured Bulgakov's place among the pantheon of great Russian writers, and contributed a number of sayings to the Russian language, for example, "Manuscripts don't burn" and "second-grade freshness." It has also influenced anyone from Mick Jagger, to Pearl Jam, to Scottish band Franz Ferdinand's song "Love and Destroy."

What. Are. You. Waiting. For? 
Grab your cozy socks, 
brew that cup of hot tea, 
snuggle up in the duvet and 
     get reading. 
'Tis the season...

11 December, 2011

Funeral! [a “How To” Guide]

Funerals are a social mystery-- a formulaic social mystery, but mysterious nonetheless for the sporadic nature of funerals mixed with a general avoidance of discussion on the subject in Western culture, makes it difficult to acquaint oneself with what’s expected in terms of proper behavior. You just muddle through each funeral, hoping you’re doing the right thing, and then muddle through it again the next time.

So, if you have been to one, you have a decent idea of the basics, but should any other funerals crop up, assume you are as royally screwed as you were the first time around.

Regardless, here are a few basics to keep in mind.


First Things First
For Starters.

1. Make certain you are at a funeral.
How you ask?
There will be signs—not literal signs, mind you. Not neon signs in child-like scrawl one finds stapled to the side of trees and lamp-posts as if the funeral were some kind of morbid yard sale, but rather, indicators.
     A. Someone will be deceased. Make certain someone is, else, you are not at a funeral, you are at a very dark house party. Someone being dead is often the point of the funeral, differentiating it from any other kind of social function.
     B. There will be a somber mood. (Unless you are cynical, or Irish, or you are at the funeral of a particularly evil dictator… or a Wicked Witch.)

2. Make certain that you are at least Six-Degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon away from the deceased.
You might not know the deceased personally, but make certain that you are more than merely there for the free deli spread. That would make you a “Funeral Crasher.” Which brings me to…

3. Do not (consciously or un—) crash a funeral.
The very worst kind of crasher on evil par with the evilest of evil villains Sauron, Hitler, both The Alien and The Predator, and debt-collecting terrorist telemarketers everywhere. Crash a funeral and you can crown yourself an archetypal evil overlord complete with
     A. a massive army of The Major M’s (monsters or monkeys or machines),
     B. possibly a flaming eyeball,
     C. green skin, and
     D. a head-piece made of brain-wave-protecting metal and/or spiky nails.



Second Things Second
Observing acceptable funeral etiquette.

Funeral etiquette is tricky. As previously mentioned, it is an unpleasant subject to dwell upon, and, unless you are in Public Service or are Lord Voldemort, your experience with funerals may tend to be few and far between.

1. Food
During the days immediately following a death the family of the deceased is usually too overwhelmed to carry on the normal every day living chores, such as cooking and cleaning. So food would be more than welcome.

     A. Unless it is shitty food, or
     B. You bring steak sliders to a vegan household, or
     C. Unless everyone brings the exact same dish, or
     D. Unless the family’s fridge gets packed with so many containers of soup and pasta and goulash that the refrigerator and freezer threaten to explode.
     E. Make certain you mark your Tupperware and list any cooking instructions.
     F. Once in attendance of the funeral, make certain you eat both a giant and a finger sandwich. Science says the smaller or larger you make a sandwich, the more effing badass it becomes.


2. You will likely see people you have not seen in years.
For better or for worse.
     A. This is not the time to confront the man who slept with your ex-husband.
     B. A certain degree of acceptable flirting with hot strangers depends on how close you are to the deceased or their family. Just make sure that hot stranger isn't a long-lost cousin.


3. Attire
Subdued colors are most appropriate for funerals.
     A. Do not wear a costume
     B. Or a veil. Please. This isn’t a Bronte novel.


4. Expressing Sympathy
     A. Simple, brief expressions of sympathy are usually best. Remember, above all, you are attending the funeral to show support of the person who has recently passed away, and your role is to support the survivors. This is not your platform for venting past disagreements, collecting on debts or hitting on the widow. Also, avoid at all costs making grieving a “contest.” People who think grief is a contest are instant losers of said contest. Don’t back a horse in that race.
     B. Cause of death can be a difficult subject. Avoid statements such as “I am so sorry to hear of the loss of Nathan’s head— I am certain once they trawl the landfill for it, they can return it to the funeral home and you can finally have your peace. Gah! Not piece— of course I didn’t mean for the terrible pun to be made I was just… trying to…Dude, I’m sorry for your loss.” Don't be that guy.
     C. Sending flowers is a traditional way to express your condolences. Be aware however, that if the grieving family is particularly poetic, flowers that will eventually die in about a week only serve as a reminder that everything dies. Just like their dead family member.


5. Sometimes things do not go as planned
     A. If, throughout the course of the funeral process, you discover that the funeral home has, say, accidentally kept the body in a Chuck E' Cheese style ball pit, or, cremated the incorrect corpse, or anything else classified as a “disaster,” by all means keep that Intel to yourself. It is safe to say that today is already pretty shit for the family of the deceased. Thus, that info can wait.
     B. Trust that in time it will all just seem like most Roper-centric episodes of Three's Company-- hysterically macabre.



Final Words
Pun intended

Keep these points in mind and you should be fine. If you screw up, you’ve blown it—absolutely feel free to bludgeon yourself with a sock full of toxic batteries. But before you do, just make certain no one screws up as royally at your funeral.

30 November, 2011

A 'Quick 5' with The Maryland Theatre Guide

A great, thought-provoking Q & A with The Maryland Theatre Guide. See you Friday!
*

Alexandra Silber will be back performing at The Kennedy Center on Dec 2, 2011, at 7:30 PM as part of The Barbara Cook Spotlight Series. She was last seen there in Master Class starring Tyne Daly. Alexandra’s London theatre credits include Carousel, Fiddler on The Roof and The Woman in White. She recently made her NYC debut in Hello Again at The Transport Group.


You will be performing at The Kennedy Center on Dec 2nd in the Barbara Cook Spotlight Series. Can you give us a hint of what you will be singing at your concert?

©dan wooller
It feels odd to call my cabaret act London Still a concert because it feels like more of a theatre-piece. Probably because it tells a linear story; the tale of why I left America as a teenager, and why I returned. It is a classic tale of ‘there and back again’’- from Odysseus to Bilbo Baggins to Dorothy – we all return to the place where we began and are changed. It is a universal human experience.

That said, I pepper it with my own details, from the serious to the utterly self-deprecating (one of my very favorite things to do). You’ll hear a great deal of Kander and Ebb, Kurt Weill, and of course Rodgers and Hammerstein, but it is also peppered with some jazz, pop and even some opera.



What are your earliest memories of performing?

I remember my very first Ballet recital when I was 5 – my class ran across the stage flapping our arms. My mom made everyone’s wings. I had bangs. There was cuteness. I also cut my teeth in the third grade in a production of Annie at El Rodeo School in Beverly Hills. No, not what you are thinking, I circumvented ever playing the title character and in fact played Miss Hannigan. Thaaaat’s right. I was fierce and mean and convinced myself for years that she behaved so badly because of her drinking. I took it really seriously.

A couple of weeks ago I went to the opening of the Kennedy Center’s beautiful production of Follies on Broadway. I was pleased to casually drop the following piece of trivia:
“I really don’t know this musical at all. I know the premise and some of the songs, but mostly I’m a Follies virgin. Though, I would be totally lying if I said that I didn’t close the 5th grade talent show with “Broadway Baby.”
Well, I did.
I want to say I closed the 5th grade talent show with “Losing My Mind,” but it would be a lie.
A great, funny lie, but a lie nonetheless.
Anyhow I had a full-on period suitcase and concept costume.


You have won critical acclaim in London for your performances in Carousel and Fiddler on the Roof. Why do you think British audiences love American musicals and are British audiences similar or different than American audiences?

Why do they love American musicals? For the same reasons we revere Shakespeare – because we invented the genre! There is nothing like seeing American musicals performed by Americans, but what I love about the British relationship to American musicals is that they do not have the same cultural references to the pieces that Americans do, as well as a completely different sociological relationship to class structures and emotional expression – all of that is very real.

An interesting example: when we began initially working on Fiddler on the Roof we were met with a perplexing issue about accents that went on for weeks. Fiddler is, to us, an American musical, possibly one of the best every written and a classic. Everyone played Lazar Wolf in High School. Everyone has been to at least one wedding where “Sunrise Sunset” made everyone melt.

But in Britain, they do not have that relationship with the piece, the characters, the story. As an officially Christian country they are less generally familiar with Judaism as a widespread cultural attribute.To them, it is a European story… because it technically is. But most fascinating of all? Why in the world would these people speak in American accents in Europe? As American theatre-goers we do not hear American accents as “accents,” for us it is the neutral sound. It makes perfect sense that everyone is stomping around the shtetl sounding like they are from various parts of Jewish America because to Americans that is a relevant parallel.

Not for the British.
So. We started with the concept of “neutral accents” – all the Jews in Anatevka had the accent we all hear on BBC News called “Received Pronunciation” (or “RP”). That didn’t work because of RP’s projection of higher-class and education – all of a sudden Tevye’s daughters sounded like they were from private schools rather than ready to milk cows in the dead of winter. Weeks of trial and error later we decided upon a European Yiddish accent (ie, Eastern Europeans that learned to speak English in England), the Russians, in contrast, used RP. It worked. A completely unique issue to the British approach to the American musical and here is my ultimate point: Americans write wonderful musicals. The British re-interpret them, wonderfully. As a British actress (up until a couple of years ago) I am proud to have cut my professional teeth there.
AND: Let’s not forget how much Americans love popular British musical theatre in return – thank you The Phantom of the Opera and Mamma Mia!. Just saying.

I have to say, I truly believe that people love great theatre no matter what the geography.



You were in Master Class here at the Kennedy Center with Tyne Daly. What were some of your fondest memories of that experience?

For the 2009–10 theater season, the Kennedy Center presented Terrence McNally’s Nights at the Opera including The Lisbon Traviata, Master Class, and Golden Age, a special collection of three McNally plays on one of his favorite subjects – the opera. Without any exaggeration, being a part of that triptych of McNally plays was one of the most fulfilling artistic experiences of my life.
So often as an actor, one can feel as though their contributions are limited – of course ideally theatre is collaborative, but we often have to take the visions of the director, the playwright, the designers into account, and though we hopefully are able to reach deep within ourselves and give, the greater principles as to why or what we are giving to can get muddled. It is rare that we get a chance to reach to offer something beyond “a great night at the theatre” and contribute to a Greater and Universal veneration of Art Itself.

But sometimes experiences come along that make you feel as though you are making a contribution not only to the piece you are involved in, to your playwright, fellow actors, or the immediate audience members who will be in attendance, but to a greater cause – sometimes you get the opportunity to be a part of a contribution to art itself. That is what the Terrence McNally Triptych was: a celebratory contribution to the world of interpretive art itself, and I felt as though I was allowed and able to weave myself deeply into that experience on every level. I made lifelong friends across all three productions, and became reacquainted with myself and my life as an American (in my nation’s Capital nonetheless!)

It was not just a “gig” (I mean, of course not, I was sharing a stage with Tyne Daly in one of the most important venues in the world). The point is: I was a part of something I believed mattered on a cosmic scale.

My time in D.C. that spring also was a period of real transition and personal healing, not to mention the fact that Sophie DePalma went on to be the role in which I made my Broadway debut. But it all began here at the Kennedy Center.
May every national artistic institution be so inspired.

I remember spending time in the Green Room we all shared – every one of us playing cards and laughing in an array of different period costumes. I remember sneaking backstage to the Family Theater from the Eisenhower to watch the second act of Golden Age from the wings (because I was only in the first act of Master Class!).
And best of all? I remember singing at Terrence and (his now husband) Tom’s wedding just outside the stage door along the banks of the Potomac on the most perfect spring day in the history of the world.


Are there any roles on Broadway now that you would like to play?  

I have always strived to do great work with gifted people regardless of the location, but some dreams/itchings include Nora in A Doll’s House, Rosalind in As You Like It, Anna in The King and I, Irene Malloy in (either!) The Matchmaker or Hello Dolly!, and an absolute dream would be to play Amalia Balash in She Loves Me (which, of course, Barbara Cook, the curator of the Spotlight Series in which I am appearing, originated herself).

But truly, there would be no greater dream than getting to revisit Julie Jordan (of Carousel) at home on Broadway. I have been so fortunate to portray her in the West End, in my birthplace of Los Angeles, California, and bringing it to New York would be a dream.
_
 

Watch Alexandra Silber as Julie Jordan in Carousel at Reprise Theater Company in LA, singing “If Loved You” & “What’s the Use of Wonderin’"

Go behind the scenes with Alexandra Silber, as she prepares at the half hour call to play Julie Jordan in the West End production of Carousel.


Alexandra Silber’s website.

27 November, 2011

A Letter


Dear Peanut Butter,

It's time.

Love

Jelly

18 November, 2011

Portrait of a Friend: Lilly

land of the stately pines [de-dah-de-dah]
I remember, probably more vividly than any other call, the moment Lilly heard the news. Kent and I were seated on my bed, still in pajamas and both totally stoic. I remember wanting to “be” there when he told her, but not wanting to do it myself.

So he told her.
I don’t recall what he said, what I do recall was the depth and ferocity of her wail, and how much I envied it.

She loved him. Everyone did.


*

Meet Lillian Townsend Copeland.

No, she is not related to Aaron Copland (though she enjoys referring to him as “Uncle Aaron”). Townsend is her mother’s maiden name.
Lilly is from Virginia.
Her parents are both doctors (her Dad, in fact, saved my eye from extinction in 1999 when a corneal cut turned into a very infected corneal ulcer and I nearly lost the whole darn thing…but that’s another story…). Her little brother William is a swimming sensation.

Lilly and I met at Interlochen Arts Camp in 1996, we weren’t always close but we were around one another a lot (in fact I think we took a Modern Dance class together somewhere in the mid-nineties). We became close Junior year of High School once we’d both made the leap from spending our summers in the North woods of Interlochen to attending the year-long Interlochen Arts Academy full time, Lilly majoring in oboe performance and I, in Theatre. By the end of Junior year we had resolved to fill a four person suite in Thor Johnson House, the senior girls dormitory, with two of my fellow theatre majors (Chrissy and Katie).

Thor Johnson House (also known as “TJ”) was shaped like an “L” and divided into six areas— four dorm hallways named according to their location— Lower Short, Lower Long, Upper Short and Upper Long. There was enough friendly rivalry and Hall Pride for a Big Ten Conference (and by 'friendly rivalry,' I mean, 'a total lack of tension,' and by 'Hall Pride,' I mean ‘none’). Still, we presided over the mustering of a you’re-in-boarding-school-now-ladies kind of enthusiasm that some eating dancers and/or people who weren’t in a practice room for seven hours a day, appeared to enjoy.

There was a main lobby with a front desk, a toaster (with a magically endless supply of toast with all the fixings), student cubby-hole mailboxes, and fluffy sofas some people sat and spoke on well into the night. There was also a downstairs greenroom where we would have our house meetings, complete with an “adult approved” and “highly voted upon” television for movie nights and the watching of “Friends,” and off this downstairs area were two long corridors of practice rooms and the offices of the woodwind and accompaniment departments.

Lilly and I were both the über official “HAs” (as in, Hall Assistants) for Upper Long. At this, we inarguably left a little something to be desired. I'm not saying we were abysmal or anything like that. I am merely saying that one could take a convicted arsonist, and give them a pack of complimentary matches, escort him to the log cabin of his childhood nemesis where you are to be spending the night,  instruct him to “have a good time,” and your predictably charred evening would be preferable to having Lilly and I be responsible for you in High School.
That's all.

We were likely candidates I suppose, returning “lifers” who “bled blue”— terms used for students that had been at Interlochen as long as anyone could remember, and thus bled the uniform colors— light blue on top (with a visible collar), navy on the bottom (the intricacies of which became more and more creative as the school year progressed). As HAs Lilly and I were supposed to make certain everyone was comfortable, felt at home, felt like they had a place to talk if they needed to. That was the part we were good at. The social, caring big sister stuff. The helping to plan the hall party stuff, the making sure the Chinese piano major who doesn’t speak English gets everything she needs in order to find her way to class (in classrooms located in the forest) on Monday stuff, the “I-just-moved-from-South-Africa-and-my-childhood-boyfriend-and-I-are-apart-for-the-first-time-ever” stuff.
That stuff.

But we were also there to attend HA meetings about house life, we had to make certain everyone in our hall attended the big school “community meetings” held every Thursday before lunch. We had to clean things and organize community service. We had to make sure everyone was “there” in a fire drill. We had to attend the fire drill.  We had to have not pulled the fire alarm ourselves. We had to be good examples. We had to be quiet. We had to obey the freaking rules—all of them. And that part, we were crap at. Lilly and I, after all, shared with Chrissy and Katie, both of whom were really, really fun, and the four of us were cool, and boisterous and had an illegal television (with a VHS player!) hidden in a giant Tupperware that we watched movies on after we were all supposed to be in bed.

One time [1], in a rousing flurry of Senior-itus, Chrissy and our next-door-neighbor Essie decided to
    1. paint their naked torsos with tempera paint
    2. Walk around the entire dorm (during school hours—so even teachers and boys might see them) and
    3. Video tape it.

And who video taped it? Lilly and I.
And who tagged along? All of Upper Long.
And how does this video tape end? With our (incredibly cool, but also incredible adult) Dorm Leader (and fabulous human) Angela Duncan, staring deadpan into the camera and simply saying

    “Um: NO.” Then she looks at Chrissy and Essie and our entire entourage and repeats, “NO—no no no.”

And it cuts out. Oops.

Five minutes later we are all in our room, the sun is setting on Green Lake outside our window. Chrissy and Essie have on both t-shirts and looks of mild shame. Katie is crumpled into our womb chair in the corner and Lilly and I are standing, military-style in front of Angela as she explains that she knows we have 6 weeks of Senior Year left but we all really need to get a freaking grip on ourselves.

    “I love all of you so much but seriously: COME. ON.”

We all nod. It is ridiculous.

    “Additionally: Alexandra Michelle and Lillian Townsend you are HALL ASSISTANTS!! You are supposed to be leaders, set examples, you are supposed to be the first line of defense when all the parents paying thousands of dollars and visiting from Asia for the four concerts this week alone want to know where on earth they have sent their children.”

She was right. Double oops. Actually, quintuple oops— for good measure.

    “I can’t believe I am about to say this, I literally cannot believe I am about to say the following sentence but; PLEASE, dear women of Upper Long, please do not cover your naked bodies in paint, roam the public hallways during working (OR non-working hours for that matter), and above all, please, please do not video tape it.”

We nodded again, with even more shame.

    “Dunc?” Chrissy said, lifting her head. “Please, there is just something I want to get off my chest.”
    “Please: say it is not your shirt.”
    “Yes!—I mean no! I just—” she grappled, “we’re sorry.”

We were. [2]

    “Accepted. We all got it?” she said, her hands in the prayer-position, “I’m gonna go now.”

Remember the last five minutes of every sports film in the history of cinema where you are inexplicably filled with the exultant joy of a game well played and a life well lived in a those-sure-were-the-best-of-times sort of a way? —We felt the opposite of that.


But man, did we have a great year. Some people might be intimidated to share their dorm life with three boisterous theatre majors, but not Lilly. Lilly was honorary, she was drama and flair, she was theatrical and powerful and loved it. Sure, sometimes she didn’t want to talk about Tennessee Williams anymore. And the sounds of Chrissy and I warming up in our communal shower must have been unpleasant at times, and I’m certain there were times where if she heard us talk about Theatre Department politics one. more. time. she was probably gonna kill us. Oh alright, and sometimes she had to explain the basics to us. Like the time Katie stared at “The Beeping Box” in total, wonder:
    “Listen guys” she said, shoving her face ever closer, “…it's like Morse Code…"
Lilly just stared, eyebrow cocked, voice ever-patient.
    "Actually, it's called a metronome…"
But if she ever truly contemplated roomaticide, she never showed it. "Do your theatre stuff" she would say, and Lilly just kept on making her reeds and doing her homework and more often that not, joining right in—picking out our outfits before auditions, expressing her monologue preferences, and, most memorable of all (with her signature scrupulous exactness), helping me learn every single line and lyric as I prepared to play Amalia Balash in She Loves Me. Lilly got so involved in the process she would often ask to “work” long after I was memorized, she would talk through the notes I got from the director.
    “I think you need to be a little ‘sobbier.’”
    “Lilly, if I got any ‘sobbier’ I'd be Meg Ryan."
    “Well then sob away—you’d have a cute haircut. And quite a career.”
Oh how she belted “Where’s My Shoe?” with all her heart! How she melted just like “Vanilla Ice Cream,” and how she detested the title song (which she referred to scathingly as the “Well, well, well” song— Adorable).

How we loved her. And how could we not? Her bewitchingly piping voice, her short hair she sometimes wore in spriggy little pigtails that looked something like a cross between broccoli and the thing on top of Bam-Bam’s head, her Southern accent that only came out when she was exhausted, how much she hated making reeds but dutifully made them anyway. She was a foreign creature to us theatre people and we were happy to be amused by her music-major culture.

In the first week of school all of the auditions for the coming year take place— theatre majors audition for the first two shows of the season (in our case, Lysistrata and She Loves Me [3]), voice majors get placed in their studios, dance majors are placed in their level classes and cast in the coming Winter ballet (Coppélia our senior year. Snore), and most stressful of all on our predominantly orchestrally-minded campus, all of the instrumental majors audition for the entire week for their “chair” in the orchestra.

I suppose this is the point where I tell you a little secret: Lilly is so insanely talented a musician, and so gifted at the oboe some might call it unjust. To listen to Lilly play is like listening to a person sing— actually sing through their instrument, with all of the individuality and soulfulness of a raw, vital, pulsing human voice which manages to capture the beauty of existence just as film captures an image. Or honey captures light. One can hear her own expressive soul come through the instrument and, though I know I am biased, I have never heard her bettered. Listening to Lilly play is like watching Ann Reinking dance next to other dancers: flat out unfair to others.

So it was no surprise to the rest of us the day the chairs were posted. Lilly lay in, buried in her duvet distraught that she had “blown it,” thus ruining her senior year, her chances at getting into college and possibly her entire life. The rest of us woke up early and looked at the posting for her—certain.

And as we screamed and celebrated in the main lobby, jumping up and down in characteristically un-music-major-like fashion, we flew upstairs, burst in and jumped on Lilly screaming like the lunatics we were
   
    “First chair, Lilly! First freakin' chair!

Lilly sat up and beamed. She laughed her Southern sun-shiney laugh and eventually, after Chrissy decided party music (in the form of Simon and Garfunkle’s "Cecelia") was “called for,” joined in our carousing dance of celebration.



Lilly might have slept through her concerto competition final were it not for Katie and I keeping track of the time, throwing her in the shower and running her to the recital hall with minutes to spare.

And (prepare your thesaurus) just imagine what our respective language lexicons would be like were it not for the nocturnally concocted memory tricks we cogitated for every word of Mr. Hintze’s notoriously (some might say opprobriously) formidable vocabulary assessments?

And maybe we all went to MORP [4] on a great big yellow school bus.
Chrissy and I chose vintage picks.
Lilly in a Catherine Silber original.
Katie made her own dress—out of duct tape.

Yes, we had a lot of adventures.
And it was, without question, a collection of favorite memories I shall hoard forever, like jewelry, or marbles, or the very last Double Stuff Oreo.


But all this being said, Lilly was something else.
Despite not being a theatre major, Lilly “played a different role:” She was my very closest friend.
She was the only one I really spoke to about my Dad’s increasingly concerning illness when the going got tough.
And it did.
Get tough.

Dad started out the year with his fifth (or so) round of regular ol’ chemo (in nine years). If there is such a thing. A bald head was the only giveaway, Dad was an ox: six foot three inches of pure, Herculean, I-have-cancer-but-remain-symptom-free-for-a-decade type strength. No one saw the end coming. No one.
That somehow made it all the more ruthless.


Previously-mentioned virtuosic musical gift aside [5], Lilly is rife with what I like to call “goods.” And I will now list them (because as we know, I love both Lilly and lists). It doesn’t take a genius to notice that Lillian Copeland has the biggest, most gorgeous hazel eyes you’ve ever seen. But let me tell you something else: this girl is compassionate, capable, and feisty. She looks right at you and waves sneakily with her oboe during the orchestral bow when you are standing and screaming for her solo (…from the front row of the stalls…with signs…) She is delightfully kooky; for example, she doesn’t refer to her oboe as “the oboe” but rather as, “Oboe,” the proper noun, as if “Oboe” is “his/her” name [6] — both delightful and kooky, you see! She is the just right amount of perfectionist and sees the great virtue in “being cute.” Yes, OKAY, fine: she has killer legs with perfect ankles that look amazing in heels.

But reader?
Lilly is the kind of solid you only think is possible in prairie people. With a sense of empathy so intuitive it makes you ache.


She would drive to-and-from Ohio more times than anyone could count. [7]
She would entertain the less-desirable members of my extended family. [8]
She would visit me in every exotic city I would ever come to live in. [9]
She would hold me while I couldn’t cry.

This is one phenomenal friend.

*

Of the central circle, Lilly was the last to arrive.

She arranged a leave of absence, caught a Greyhound Bus up from Oberlin the following morning set to arrive around lunch time, though she didn’t arrive at the house until dinner time because despite our Black-Ops-worthy planning, somehow, we forgot to pick her up. For hours.
    “I’m so sorry,” Grey said when he finally arrived in his Rav 4 after driving nearly 150 miles that day alone, “I don’t know how we missed you Lil. We had everything planned down to the mili-second.”
    “It’s okay,” Lilly laughed, tired, but not even the tiniest bit irked, “I understand. I was just a little freaked out.”
    “Because you were young woman alone in the Detroit Greyhound Station? No worries there.”
    “Right” she said. Even her laugh was still sunny and Southern. [10])


Lilly rang the bell at 1367.
    “Hi” she said “I brought Oboe.” Obviously Lilly was going to play at the funeral. Obviously.
    “Come in” I said. And she did.


We arranged the sleeping situation: Grey and Kent opted to sleep downstairs in the lower guest room (which had previously doubled as my mom’s design studio)— it had its own bathroom (which seemed to be a masculine virtue), a dark window facing the Rouge River, and a trundle bed below the day bed we bought when we moved to Michigan because I had seen one once on “The Price is Right” and thought the overly enthusiastic models made it appear outstanding. Lilly and I shared my room— also on twin trundles amidst what suddenly felt to be the fragmented souvenirs of a now forever-lost childhood, and Mom, felt understandably un-enthused about sleeping in The Bed of Death and thus took the spare bed in my Dad’s former office (an office he hadn’t used in months as the disease took full control of him), which Mom would remain in for weeks, until we all sojourned out to Art Van to get her a new bed.


Lil and I settled into my room, she put her bags down, pushed the hair off of her weary face and sat next to me on the bed.
    “Al?” she said.
    “Yeah Lil?”
There was a pause so gorged with meaning the air almost went opaque. Her voice was quiet. Sure.
    “I’ve got this. We’ve got this.”
    “I know…” I replied.
    “You’ve got this.”
    “Thank you, Lilly.”

She hugged me. That said it all. 
We immediately went downstairs and got to work.

There was  an entire extended family of unhelpful people to play offense with. There were 7000 people to pick up from Wayne County Airport, The Greyhound station (which we later discovered to in fact, be three Greyhound stations, all sixteen miles apart). There were people to call, housing to arrange, people to feed.
And of yes: a funeral to plan.
And three eighteen-year-olds would do it all.
All of it.

Because some people can plan funerals when they are eighteen.



[1] at band—school? Literally…
[2] Stir-crazy iiiiiidioooooots.
[3] Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s glorious musical take on The Shop Around the Corner
[4] the Interlochen version of Prom—MORP is “Prom” backwards
[5] …like it can be placed to the side. But you if you will, I would like it, for now, to be placed to the side
[6] I am not certain if Oboe has a gender.
[7] Now that’s love. Plus a lot of unnecessary time on The Turnpike…
[8] Often.
[9] Including Alpena. That’s real love. More on that later.
[10] Okay, we actually were

15 November, 2011

Things I love about... Part 2: New Gal-Pals

New Friends!


elizabeth
- she is the 'el stans' to my 'al silbs' and that is pretty damn adorable if you ask me (and you are)
- we are like a Midwestern blonde/brunette team of pure *awesome*
- we do fun things together: like go to the farmers market, have "kamikaze-scary-early-morning-coffee," and late night impromptu wine. Fabulous.
- there is nothing we can't talk about
- Taxi Time! ["Luuuuuucy 'splain" I hear you say...] We bonded taking taxis home to Astoria together during late-night (5pm-2am!!) crazy tech for Hello Again. Hellooooo! And thus, "Taxi Time" was born.
- she has the kind of adorable speaking voice you can do really great impressions of [see 'nikka,' below]
- so deep. so smart. always searching and growing.
- she cries when you tell her good stories.


morgan
- she also lives in astoria (how do you like them apples?!)
- she is a do-er
- she makes me feel like I am some sort of Life Rockstar... which is pretty awesome, especially when we all have our doubts--don't you love pals like that? The ones that don't even have to try to make you feel awesome that is just how they see you?
- we literally met on a friend date that began on the internet. like as in "hi we should be pals" on the internet. and then met in a Greek cafe for brunch because brunch is the very best. Duh. In the friend dating circuit? We are now "going steady." Score.
- she doesn't wear makeup unless she is paid and still out of control beautiful.
- she really believes in true love.


nikka
- the first time we talked we "went there" and have never gone back
- she pulls out witty one liners like no other:
     - "but I want to be in the show"
     - "things i was not kidding about"
     - "it is not fair to others..."
     - and a strategic use of "too soon?" is included here... out of homage to her genius. and timing.
- i don't even think i need to mention the sense of style thing. or the high fashion kind of beauty thing. or the dancing like a goddess thing. So i won't.
- she does one a-ma-zing impression of el stans
- sometimes she gets so upset about the world and how much she cares about and loves it that she weeps. and she makes you care more.
- she is a poster child for only children gone sooooo right.

04 November, 2011

What About Bob and The Dying (a memoir)

I am sleeping downstairs tonight. I am in a pair of light and dark blue checkered pajamas with a moth-eaten teal wool sweater I acquired from the share box at Interlochen last spring. JNF is asleep next to me, the very fact of which is off because if my Dad were not upstairs dying he would not be happy that his teenage daughter was lying in bed next to her teenage boyfriend. But there is nothing funny going on. JNF is asleep and I am wide awake and thinking about what must be going on upstairs. The Dying. 


*

What About Bob? is my undisputed favorite film of all time. In a top ten list of favorite films, Bob would take up the top three slots. I could watch it on repeat, I could probably quote the entire thing from beginning to end (with intonations and pauses, inflections, music cues and everything) if you challenged me to. In fact I dare you: challenge me to. Go on. [1]


First things first: 

[**Old World Hollywood cinematic entrance music!!**]

What About Bob? is a 1991 film directed by Frank Oz about a doctor-patient relationship pushed way beyond the office.

Bob Wiley (played brilliantly by Bill Murray), a neurotic New York psychiatric patient struggling with a whirlwind of paralyzing phobias who takes to Dr. Leo Marvin's (the equally astonishing Richard Dreyfuss) latest bestselling book "Baby Steps" like no therapy before it; and in one session alone bonds with, depends upon, and in the most charming way conceivable, subsequently follows his successful and (beyond) egotistical, callous, self-absorbed, S.O.B. psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin north to New Hampshire on a month's vacation.

But Dr. Marvin, is not only seeking a few weeks of rest and relaxation, he is preparing for a highly anticipated interview on Good Morning America and viewing Bob's stalking as highly inappropriate, he demands Bob return to New York. (In fact, Dr. Marvin’s unprecedented success with a patient is all the more ironic, because it would massage his massive ego if it weren't such an intolerable disruption to his vacation.) But Bob can't take a hint, and decides to indulge in his very own "vacation from his problems” in the area!  Bob is here to stay!

Meanwhile, Marvin's wife Fay (Julie Hagerty), death-obsessed son Sigmund (Charlie Korsmo), and teenage-daughter Anna (Kathryn Erbe) all take to Bob's openness, loopy charm, and sense of “fun,” none of which Dr. Marvin himself possesses and he views as an infuriating threat. Marvin's temperature rises as Bob insinuates his way into the hearts of the Marvin family— flattering Fay, counseling the previously ignored Anna and most profoundly, helping Sigmund overcome his greatest fears.


Next. Let’s get a few things clear:

    - I did not, I repeat did NOT play it so many times on VHS that it began to skip.
    - I have never claimed that “Bob” [2] is the “I Ching.” Not ever.
    - I have not quoted “Bob” to total strangers on public transportation.
    - I do not love it so much that sometimes I put it on just as “wallpaper” while I clean the house or do my taxes.
    - And above all, I did not get so frustrated by my inability to have access to Bob’s amusement and wisdom at all times that I resorted to holding a professional (purpose bought) microphone up to the television speaker in order to record the entire film on a 120 minute cassette-tape so that I might listen to it on my Walkman…or in the car… or at summer camp…

Saying any of that were true might mean that I was an obsessive crazy fool.
So… yeah…OKAY,
[*she waves her hands in the air, rolls her eyes, exhales and makes the ‘come clean’ face*]
The truth is this: I am an obsessive crazy fool!
A fool for What About Bob? and I don’t even really know why!


When listing ones favorite films I have always considered it important to designate and divide into separate categories: The Favorite Films That Are Legitimate Works of Art and Really Challenge You List— Citizen Kane and Schindler’s List type movies that are in-arguably brilliant but require focus and discipline and serious-mindedness even if the film is amusing. And The Special Favorite Films You Could Watch Again and Again Because They Make You Feel Amazing List—which includes things resembling The Great Muppet Caper and Turner and Hooch. Sometimes there is a cross-over (Amalie?), but pah! Why get into nitty-grittys? The point is I think everybody has a film or two like this: the kind of “favorite movie” where, the second it is over, you loved it so much you could press-rewind-and-watch-the-whole-damn-thing-again kind of love.

I know people who irrationally love Big.
I know other families spend entire mealtimes quoting and guffawing over National Lampoon’s European Adventure.
Or a handful of people who can’t get enough of The Jerk.


Well, for our family, it was What About Bob? and it all started with my dad. I remember the first time we ever watched it in the last home we ever had in Los Angeles. He practically sprinted out to purchase that VHS; and we watched it twice— back to back.

Dad loved this movie for reasons I may never fully know, and desperately wish I did. Perhaps it had something to do with the odd take on psychotherapy. Perhaps it had to do with Bob’s innocence or Bill Murray’s irreverent but child-like sense of humor (that actually reminded me so much of his). Perhaps it was because the film, at it’s core, has a really touching central message without taking itself too seriously. Perhaps it was just amusing, I truly don’t know, but what I am realizing as I type this is that the film became important to me because it was important to him. We would watch it together, laugh, quote, laugh some more, and as I grew it took on it’s very own significance.

When I woke up in the morning he would often greet me with:
    “Good morning Gil… I said good morning Gil.

Or the casual greeting of:
    “Ahoy!”

Or if someone asked how he felt about something he might respond with:
    “There are two types of people in this world: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.”

Or if someone were mean to me at school he would quote Bob’s wisdom:
    “You know, I treat people, as if they were telephones, If I meet somebody I think doesn't like me I say to myself, I say; ‘Bob, this one is temporarily out of order.’ You know, don't break the connection, just hang up and try again!”

Therein lies a great deal of the draw: Bob Wiley, it would seem, is oddly enlightened, and What About Bob? oddly profound. With every viewing I discovered another level of profundity in a manner in which only Bill Murray seems to be able to deliver on the knife’s edge of comic insanity (Groundhog Day and The Life Aquatic being perfect examples). And every time I watched Bob and found a new nugget of hilarious, but deeply perceptive human observation; I not only felt smarter, or wiser, but I felt closer to my Dad.


So, incongruous though it may seen, it is fitting that it all began there...

About two-thirds of the way into the film, we find Bob sleeping over at The Marvins’ Lake Winnapesawke home due to a torrential rainstorm. He shares a room with Siggy, Dr. Marvin’s 11-year-old son that Bob has, earlier in the day, helped to overcome his morbid fear of diving. They lie there in their PJs, in angled twin beds, staring at the ceiling into the darkness. Siggy looks terrified as his voice utters quietly, 
Siggy: Bob?
Bob: Yeah?
Siggy: Are you afraid of death?
Bob is caught off guard. He is suddenly frightened too— his eyes grown wide and searching, like a child trying to keep their cool.
Bob: Yeah.
Bob answers, as in a “Yeah, so?!” kind of way particular to children one-upping each other. It's cute.
Siggy: Me too. And there’s no way out of it. You’re going to die. I’m going to die. It’s going to happen.
Siggy blinks, clearly the fear is very, very real.
Siggy [cont]: …And who cares if it’s tomorrow or eighty years? ...much sooner in your case...Do you know how fast time goes? I was six, like, yesterday.
Bob: Me too.
Siggy: I’m going to die. You are going to die... what else is there to be afraid of...?

I think.
I think about The Dying.

And in this moment, as I lay downstairs in ratty checkered 'share box' pajamas beside the love of my youth, that very scene from that very stupid, over-quoted, over-played, trivial and pathetically beloved movie, is all I can think of.
My Dad is going to die.
There is no way out of it.
And who cares if it really is tomorrow or in eighty years?
It is going to happen.
And if he dies I am very certain I might die too.
Siggy is right:
    what else is there to be afraid of?



[1] I will do it…
[2] which is the term I give the entire film, not merely the character of Bob Wiley himself

02 November, 2011

A Letter

Dear John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,

We have the same name.
Small World.

Sincerely Yours,

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt


22 October, 2011

I've Been [*Special Edition*]: A Word Puzzle

Directions: Find all of the words from the list below- the remaining spaces will reveal the hidden message!




B R P A T R T O F B E I N G H
S A E A R E E S T I N G A C T
R I D T T R R E S S I S A A E
C E N C N D R A I L L I U J B
T U B G R E A L B L Y G D S A
E T T O I I C I N A G A I D Z
Y D I Y T N M Y R E C S T N I
T N C E U C G E D Y L H I E L
G H N H G N O E D E X Z O I E
P K P O I X T B R R N E N R A
D S W T G R E Q A V A N S F R
W F I V O A C K T T R M E O R
R R A I F J H N C E Z D A K E
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17 October, 2011

Autumn Reads: A List

Inspired by the NPR autumn reads School Daze list of autumnal books, I present to you my very own list of books for the harvest season. This season of cozy. The season of pumpkins and gourd-related soup, root vegetables, the best-holiday-of-them-all (Halloween), of cardamon and cardigans...of my kick ass red coat...

Read on.

1. The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis

I should start by saying this: "The Magician's Nephew is the first in the 7-volume collection of C.S Lewis' beloved Chronicles of Narnia." But I am not going to say that. [*Insert: inflammatory hand gestures and angry face*] Oh and WHY do you ask?! Because I am stubborn and opinionated and get allll kinds of crazy when it comes to the "'order' of The Chronicles of Narnia debate."

Hi my name is Al and I am that crazy woman in Barnes and Nobel who goes to the children's section and rearranges all of the Chronicles so that they are in the "correct" and ORIGINAL order.

Hi Al...

Yes. I am absolutely that woman.

Have you never heard of this debate? Googlerightnow. Go on! It is huge. It is heated. It is beyond the realms of what anyone would consider 'okay.'  I can talk to people about social politics more level-headedly than I can about The Stupid Stupid Waste of Time Narnia Order Debate. And, like most bigots, I prefer to surround myself with people that agree with me thankyouverymuch.

::sigh::

Anyway, although what is called the "chronological" (aka IN-CORR-ECT post 1994) arrangement has become the "official" order for numbering the Chronicles, it may (read, IS) not be the best order for reading them!

The long and short of it is this: Lewis wrote most of the books in order, telling a linear story about the events in Narnia in  
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Prince Caspian
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and  
The Silver Chair.
However, the fifth book published, The Horse and His Boy, actually takes place during The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,
and the sixth book, The Magician’s Nephew, is a prequel.
The seventh book, The Last Battle, tells about the end of Narnia and should be read last.

My argument is this:
Often, a story is not entirely about it's chronological holdings-- what makes a story juicy, what indeed makes good storytelling great, it is the way in which the story is told. The order in which we receive our information. Red herrings. Flashbacks. Plot twists. Big reveals. Cliffhangers--These are all story telling devices that make the experience of reading (or watching or listening) so much more fruitful and enticing.

When the Pevensie children discover Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, they are discovering it alongside us, the readers. They know nothing of this magical place and have as many questions as we do. As we continue to read the books we learn more and more, become more intrinsically involved in the inner workings of the land, we fight for it, believe in it as a place, and, just as we are about to defend it for what feels to be the final and most important time, we as readers go back in time to learn all about how Narnia began, before we re-engage with how it is all about to end. That is the main bulk of my argument. It is better storytelling that gives the reader herself a more profound experience and relationship with the story arc and most crucially, the place of Narnia itself. My argument is simple: better storytelling is not always chronological storytelling. The original order is a far preferable literary and emotional reading experience.

There is a contemporary school of thought that favors The Magician's Nephew (technically a prequel if you will --and I will NOT) should not indeed be read as a flashback/prequel, but should launch the reading experience altogether, and is thus now commonly placed before The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 

Wrong. Answer.

I believe, (as do a several of scholars who have written about the Chronicles), that thematic effects in the stories depend on beginning the Narnia experience with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and are lost when The Magician's Nephew is read first.

Additionally, the classical pattern of The Magician's Nephew also fits better as sixth than as first in the series. The Magician's Nephew and The Last Battle are sister volumes practically begging to be read back to back, rather than to bookend the series. They intertwine the accounts of the ends of two worlds: of the old world of Charn (ruled by the evil Queen Jadis who would eventually leave Charn and come to rule Narnia as The White Witch for 100 years) and of Narnia itself. They also chronicle two beginnings: of Narnia and the New Narnia. The two books use a depiction of seasonal cycle imagery meant to mirror the full cycle of life, and of course the history of Narnia. The symbolism reinforces plot detail in unifying the beginning of Narnia with the end. This archetypal pattern is most effective if The Magician's Nephew and The Last Battle are read together: the immediate juxtaposition of the two books brings out well the completeness and unity of Narnian history, and it is this completeness that plagues me so.

Listen, I am not an overtly religious, nor am I an irreligious person, but I know Symbology when I see it, and I know how to write and tell a good story, and the central point Lewis is trying to convey is that our experience with Narnia as readers, as well as the Narnian world itself, has a beginning and an ending. It is one of the essential themes of the stories, and it is easily missed if five other books separate The Magician's Nephew from The Last Battle in the reader's experience. Moreover, The Magician's Nephew compliments The Last Battle-- and the books, when read together move as the season's do-- from lighter tone, to darker then light again.

Which is why (coming back around to the point!) The Magician's Nephew is on the autumn list-- The Magician's Nephew took Lewis over 6 years to write, the longest of any Narnia book, and references several autobiographical experiences throughout. It is written in a lighter tone than other Narnia books, (in particular The Last Battle which is incredibly dark and adult in tone), and frequently reflects the sense of "looking back"-- a very nostalgic quality many associate with autumn. It looks upon childhood with great affection (just as Lewis as a middle-age man recalled his childhood during the early part of the 20th century), the "old days," and in particular, school life. It is an autumnal book. It prepares you for (okaaaaay either) wintery book that follows it, and is so chock full of colorful characters, fantastic twists, connections and parallels, as well as intricately drawn characters that somehow speak in the most authentic voices of all the books. 

Wherever you begin your journey with Narnia, it is crucial that you begin, and at this time of year The Magician's Nephew does indeed beg to be read, or perhaps re-read... though you can't say I didn't try to make my case... just sayin' they are so readable and addictive you could toooootally make it through the first five before the end of November I am just. saying..

  
2. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I have a family friend who recently told me he re-reads To Kill a Mockingbird every couple of years.

I happen to find the symbolism in Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel to be very simple-- beautifully so, a quality best experienced in autumn before winter makes us long for decadence. While the symbolism might be simple, the themes are immense-- growing up, small town life, the co-existence of good and evil, morality, and of course, prejudice. The book is as true and vivid today as ever.

A perfect mix of actual "I read this in school" memories and a classic tale set in autumn, you can almost smell the burning leaves as Scout walks down the streets. The gunpowder, the closing in of the evenings...


3. Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

Cosmicomics is a book of short stories first published in Italian in 1965 and in English in 1968. Each story takes a scientific "fact" (though sometimes a falsehood by today's understanding), and builds an imaginative story around it. An always extant being called Qfwfq narrates all of the stories save two, each of which is a memory of an event in the history of the universe. Qfwfq also narrates some stories in Calvino's t zero. All of the stories feature non-human characters with very human qualities.

My favorite story is the first, "The Distance of the Moon" of which I was inspired to write "Elegy" for the Edwin Morgan Poetry Prize in 2003, and is one of the most exquisitely heart-wrenching stories of unrequited love I have ever come across.

Writer Salman Rushdie writes: 
According to Calvino's story "The Distance of the Moon," the moon was once so close to the earth that lovers could jump across to it and — literally moonstruck — tryst and dally on the shining satellite, which was, by the way, dripping with moon milk, a kind of cream cheese. Then the moon started moving away, and lovers had to choose whether to return to Earth or remain trapped in the land of love.
Read the rest of Salman Rushdie's beautiful love letter to Cosmicomics on NPR's You Must Read This blog here.


4. Our Town by Thornton Wilder

I cannot even think about Our Town without bursting into tears. It is my favorite thing on earth. It is so dear to me in fact, that I do not think I can go on about it.
Just read it.
It is perfect.
There is a moon. A quiet cemetery. A love story. A small New England town. An omniscient narrator. And the most important message in the world.



5. The Ballad of The Sad Café by Carson McCullers

The Ballad of the Sad Café opens on the set of a small, isolated Southern town. The story introduces Miss Amelia, a strong character of both body and mind, who is approached by a hunchbacked man with only a suitcase in hand who claims to be of kin. . .

                ...um.... how can you not want to keep reading that?!

Generally considered one of McCullers's best works of fiction (and her most successful exploration of her signature themes: loneliness and the effects of unrequited love). Citing her remark that "everything significant that has happened in my fiction has also happened to me" I add this little Post Script: McCullers was 24. I repeat: twenty-four-years-old when she began writing the novella during the winter of 1941. I know I am 28 and have had a colo(u)rful life and all but come on! Her writing style is one I find to be astonishingly original, complex and above all, honest.


6. The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Look.
It's brilliant and plays *are,* without question, meant to be seen (else 'what on earth are you doing with your life' her inner voice inquired),  but this is a gem, and Arthur Miller's stage directions are as lively and poetic as Ionesco's (without a doubt the very best stage direction writer of them all), and as intelligently observed as any journalist.

Based on historical people and real events, Miller's play about the Salem witch trials uses the destructive power of socially sanctioned violence unleashed by the rumors of witchcraft as a powerful parable about American McCarthyism. This is a truly magnificent play about what happens when hysteria takes over a society. When the wrong people gain access to the levers of power (sound familiar?)
It is Halloween in bonnets.
It is part Mean Girls, part Fatal Attraction, part Good Night and Good Luck.
It is horror story meets psychological literature meets history meets "based on a true story."
....um...so why aren't you buying it right now

 
7. Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

My literary agent (and pal!) Louise first introduced me to the great Anne Fadiman, essayist upon such great subjects as ice cream, early rising, married libraries, re-readings, and many others. This slim (and pleasingly red) volume is not only perfect for all things commuting, but a delightful collection of essays regarding the nature of, character of, reading of, acquisition of, and visceral love of books. Start with Anne Fadiman, and her incredibly smart but still utterly readable prose will win you over, make you laugh and swoon all in one, (again) pleasingly slim, red companion.

[*NOTE: In attempting to find an image for this book I did a search only to discover, TO MY HORROR that the American edition of Ex Libris is.... not red. It is a beautiful pastel green. Um, it is a very nice green, but if you want the red version you must purchase it from England. I suggest you do so...*] 


8. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkein

In my opinion, there is no better time to begin reading The Lord of The Rings Trilogy. You can feel autumn closing in around The Shire as the tale begins for Frodo and his companions on arguably one of the greatest adventure stories ever written. What feels so right this time of year to begin is that if you continue (a what I call a "savory" pace) you will be going through the most action packed, as well as emotionally desperate sequences at the height of winter which matches perfectly with the tone of the piece, and feeling the resolve of the story just as spring is beginning to break. These books are not to be skimmed, so really enjoy them, and take three-quarters of the year to do it. You can always pace yourself with other works if you need to space it out.

But just as nothing can compare to "destination reading" (reading The Alexandria Quartet in Egypt, A Room With A View in Florence, The Fountainhead in New York City, or toting Tolstoy on your trip to Russia), nothing beats matching your reading to the change of the light outside your window, the feel of curling up with a good book that deserves a hot cider to accompany it, just as a beach read deserves its beach.


... Happy Reading.

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