About Last Night|
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, December 23, 2005
OGIC: The art of eating
Not a lot of arts content from my corner this week, but I do have this recipe for the cookie that has been deemed best in show at our house this year.
1 cup flour
3 oz. cream cheese
1/4 lb. butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1 tbsp. melted butter
1 cup chopped pecans
3 drops vanilla
Make the dough by blending flour, cream cheese, and softened butter together well. In a separate bowl, combine remaining ingredients to make the filling. Roll dough into 1-inch balls and flatten evenly into mini-muffin pan cups, dough flush with tops of cups. Drop about a teaspoon of filling into each cup (do not overfill). Bake in a 350-degree oven for 25-30 minutes.
Walnuts would work, too. We doubled the recipe, a wise move since we ate half the results almost immediately.
UPDATE: A reader knowledgeable in these matters writes, "This recipe is an old Southern favorite of British origin. The original was actually made with walnuts and was made southern with the addition of pecans. If you have access to a southern garden-club or ladies-auxiliary cookbook you will see them called 'Pecan Tassies.' No southern wedding reception or bridge club would be complete without them." Nor any post-Christmas drive across Michigan, as I learned today! Many thanks for the genealogy and proper title.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Friday, December 23, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Remember me?
Not only am I not dead yet, but I’m back in The Wall Street Journal today with a review of two shows, Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life:
George Bernard Shaw had all the defects of all his virtues. He offered Edwardian theatergoers a heady brew of progressive ideas—but the left-wing notions that propelled his once-controversial plays long ago lost their power to shock. His characters were forever tossing off speeches that crackled and fizzed with wit—but they never knew when to shut up. Even the best of his plays can be unutterably tedious in anything short of a near-perfect performance. Am I surprised, then, that the Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” is so exciting? Not even slightly. When it comes to my favorite Off Broadway company, I take such marvels for granted….
I wasn’t around for the 1975 New York Shakespeare Festival revival of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” which starred Lynn Redgrave and Ruth Gordon, but I can’t imagine it having been superior to this production, which ranks with “The Trip to Bountiful” and “Sweeney Todd” at the top of my list of new shows worth seeing….
It’s not ungentlemanly to say that Chita Rivera is 72, since she makes no secret of it. Nor has she sought to conceal the fact that her “autobiographical” show, “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life,” was written by playwright Terrence McNally. For that matter, “The Dancer’s Life” isn’t even a one-woman show: Ms. Rivera does nearly all the talking, but she’s backed by an ensemble of ten dancers and an on-stage orchestra. So if you were expecting something similar to “At Liberty,” Elaine Stritch’s brassily candid solo show about life upon the wicked stage, you’re going to be surprised by “The Dancer’s Life,” which feels more like an as-told-to musical than a hot-dish gossipfest. It’s brisk, slick, just a little bit impersonal—and boundlessly entertaining….
No link, so if you want to read the whole thing, pick up a copy of today’s Journal, or give yourself a Christmas present by going here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with instant access to the complete text of my review (along with lots of other art-related stories).
TT: Off I go
Not forever! But in light of my new resolve to take things easier, my plan for the coming week is to blog minimally—if at all. I might conceivably poke my head in once or twice, but don’t count on seeing me again until next Friday.
Before I go, here’s a sneak preview of my next "Sightings" column, “Not for Blacks Only,” which will be published in Saturday's Wall Street Journal:
Morgan Freeman may have a bone to pick with you—especially if you’ve ever had occasion to refer to him as “one of America’s best black actors.” Which he is, of course, the same way that Lynn Nottage is one of America’s best black playwrights, or Martin Puryear one of America’s best black sculptors. But the trouble with these three descriptions is that each contains the same needlessly limiting adjective. Mr. Freeman is one of America’s best actors—period. To narrow the scope of his superiority to other actors with black skin would be like calling Helen Frankenthaler “one of America’s best woman painters”: True, yes, and totally beside the point....
Needless to say, there's plenty more where that came from. See for yourself—buy a copy of tomorrow's Journal and look me up.
One last thing: I suspect that most of you have some idea of how deeply touched I am by your kind words and best wishes. There is nothing I could possibly say that would do more than hint at what I’m feeling right now, so I’ll put it as simply as I can: you have lifted up my heart.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
“I think the name of leisure has come to cover three totally different things. The first is being allowed to do something. The second is being allowed to do anything. And the third (and perhaps most rare and precious) is being allowed to do nothing.”
G.K. Chesterton, “Our Notebook,” Illustrated London News (July 23, 1927)
OGIC: Notes on the way out the door
Happy holidays! Since arriving home Tuesday night, I've been sucked into the vortex of Christmas at the parents', a nonstop whirlwind of baking, wrapping, bow-tying, and, still, shopping, which is where we're headed now. A few items on the fly:
My poem is up today at Coudal Partners. I haven't had the guts to listen. Hope it turned out all right.
There are three really curious cats around here, and one enormous bedecked tree. They seem utterly disinclined to jump on it. Are stories of cats downing Christmas trees mainly apocryphal? Send your true tales of tree mayhem to me.
I'm about to be left behind! More later.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, December 22, 2005 | Permanent
TT: After breakfast
I awoke at six a.m. on Tuesday with sentences forming in my head. Knowing there was no point to staying in bed, I got up to write my Friday drama column for The Wall Street Journal, the first time I’d written anything for money since I went to the hospital.
This time, though, I didn’t stick to my normal obsessive-compulsive routine of going straight from bed to desk. Instead I headed for the kitchen of my mother’s house in Smalltown, U.S.A., where I popped an English muffin in the toaster, poured myself a bowl of raisin bran, and sat down at the table with a small glass of orange juice, there to reflect on my changed state. At forty-nine I’ve made a discovery: Breakfast Is the Most Important Meal of the Day, especially for overweight workaholics with slightly enlarged left ventricles. So now I eat my raisin bran every day, like it or not, and the exasperating part is that I do like it. Somehow I doubt anyone really enjoys finding out in middle age that the rest of the world has always been right. Breakfast every morning, a vacation every year…what next? Am I to become a reality-TV addict?
From there I shuffled down the hall to my bedroom, pulled a folding chair up to the rickety card table next to the bed, turned on my iBook, and dialed up the Web to find out what was happening in the rest of the world (my mother doesn’t have a computer of her own, much less a high-speed connection). I downloaded my e-mail, checked out the latest details of the New York transit strike, eyeballed a couple of favorite blogs, logged off, and started writing. Save for the change of venue and the fact that I was writing on a full stomach, I might almost have been at my own desk in Manhattan.
Of course I wasn’t, nor am I the same person who sat at that desk two weeks ago and knocked out a review
of The Trip to Bountiful. For one thing, I’m twenty pounds lighter, and both my arms are still covered with the bruises that heart patients invariably bring home from the hospital as souvenirs of their stay (every shot the nurses give you leaves a bruise behind when you’re taking daily doses of a blood thinner). Nor did the words that gush forth from my fingers on Tuesday mornings come quite so easily this time around. It took me an hour and a half longer than usual to finish my column.
Those weren’t the only reminders of what I’d been through. I reviewed two plays this week. One was the last show I saw before going into the hospital—the one from whose preview I had to be helped into a cab by a press agent—and the other was the first I saw after coming home last Tuesday. It felt strange to open my notebook and look at the random phrases I’d scribbled down in the dark while watching Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, wondering as I scribbled whether I’d live long enough to file my review. One of them was a line from Terrence McNally’s script, a description of Bob Fosse, the director of Sweet Charity and Chicago: “All smiles and cigarette smoke.” I thought of All That Jazz, the movie in which Fosse dramatized his first heart attack, the one he survived. (It was the second one that killed him.) The line was perfectly legible, as if the person sitting behind me had been shining a flashlight on my notebook while I wrote it down. I made a point of including it in the review.
At length I finished the piece and e-mailed it to my editor at the Journal, afraid it might not be up to par. I thought it was, but what did I know? Perhaps I’d lost my touch. A couple of hours later the copyeditor kicked it back with a couple of minor queries, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever else my brush with death had done to me, I could still write. The trick, I thought, will be to write a bit less, to spend more nights sitting at home listening to music and looking at the Teachout Museum, to knock off earlier each day and go to bed earlier each night and take a day or two off each month. Or maybe even each week.
All changed, changed utterly, I told myself, knowing too well that it won’t be so easy as that. Every day I'll get out of bed and do battle with the demon who drives me, and every night I'll go to bed and rest up for the next day’s fight. Some days I’ll win, some days I won’t. The trick, I suppose, will be to win more often than not, to slowly drain the congestion of overwork from my life as the doctors at Lenox Hill Hospital drained the excess fluid from my heart and lungs. Would there were a pill for that! Instead I must teach myself to make more room for life and love and everything else I spent the past few years pushing away. That's something I learned in the hospital: if you want to be loved, you have to make room.
I spent the rest of Tuesday watching old movies on TV, idly chatting with my mother about nothing in particular, and talking on the phone to friends who longed to know more about the changes in my life that began when I called 911 last week. I slept deeply and well, then awoke at six with new phrases forming in my head. Knowing there was no point to staying in bed, I got up to write my “Sightings” column for Saturday’s Journal—but not before breakfast.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 22, 2005 | Permanent
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
"Word has reached me that you are having fun on the set. This must stop."
Jack Warner, from a memo sent to Howard Hawks during the shooting of To Have and Have Not (quoted in Todd McCarthy, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood)
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 22, 2005 | Permanent
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
"We all share in a shattering duality—and by this I don't mean that soggy, superficial split that one so often sees: the kind of thing, for example, where the gangster sobs uncontrollably at an old Shirley Temple movie. I mean the fundamental schism that Newman referred to when he spoke of man being forever involved in the consequences of some 'terrible, aboriginal calamity'; every day in every man there is this warfare of the parts. And while all this results in meanness and bitterness and savagery enough, God knows, and while only a fool can look around him and smile serenely in unwatered optimism, nevertheless the wonder of it all is to me the frequency with which kindness, the essential goodness of man does break through, and as one who has received his full measure of that goodness, I can say that for me, at least, it is in the long succession of these small, redemptive instants, just as much as in the magnificence of heroes, that the meaning and the glory of man is revealed...."
Edwin O'Connor, The Edge of Sadness
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 21, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Hearing voices
Speaking of dem memes, hometown bloggers Coudal Partners, who always have something cool up their sleeves, have kind of outdone themselves now. They have audio recordings of people reading their favorite short poems as left on an answering service. You can call in too, operators are waiting, but have your poem ready. I've done it and anxiously wait to see whether GMH and I will make the cut...if we do, you'll be the first to know.
LATER: I should add that the current poem, Thomas Hardy's "Neutral Tones," happens to be Maud Newton's favorite. Perhaps Maud will contribute to the project—I think it would be fascinating to hear multiple readings of the same poem by different readers, especially given that all of the readers involved in Poetry After The Beep can be assumed to have a strong attachment to their poems.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, December 20, 2005 | Permanent
TT: My turn
I have my orders from Our Girl, so here goes with the Meme of Four. All answers are guaranteed to have come straight off the top of my head:
Four jobs you've had in your life: bank teller, dance-band bass player, magazine editor, newspaper editorial writer.
Four movies you could watch over and over: Rio Bravo, You Can Count on Me, Out of the Past, Doc Hollywood.
Four places you've lived: Smalltown, Kansas City, Champaign-Urbana, New York City.
Four TV shows you love to watch: Gilmore Girls, Buffy reruns, What’s My Line?, black-and-white episodes of Dragnet.
Four places you've been on vacation: Fallingwater, Branson, Gatlinburg, Isle au Haut.
Four websites you visit daily: Maud Newton, in the wings, The American Scene, Modern Art Notes.
Four of your favorite foods: smoked salmon, chocolate sorbet, fresh mozzarella, really good hot dogs.
Four places you'd rather be: Good Enough to Eat, the Phillips Collection, the Jazz Standard, the Seth Peterson Cottage.
Monday, December 19, 2005
Someone to hold you too close,
Someone to hurt you too deep,
Someone to sit in your chair,
To ruin your sleep.
Someone to need you too much,
Someone to know you too well,
Someone to pull you up short,
To put you through hell.
Someone you have to let in,
Someone whose feelings you spare,
Someone who, like it or not,
Will want you to share
A little, a lot.
Someone to crowd you with love,
Someone to force you to care,
Someone to make you come through,
Who’ll always be there,
As frightened as you
Of being alive.
Stephen Sondheim, “Being Alive” (music by Sondheim)
OGIC: The untouchable
A reader writes:
You mentioned in a recent post that you were laughing at Diane Keaton in The Godfather, Part II. By any chance, was it the scene were she admits to having had an abortion?
Yes, it was that bit precisely.
Her overwrought performance in that scene is jarring; I feel as if I'm suddenly watching a John Waters film. I can better picture Divine or Mink Stole screaming, "I had an abortion! An abortion, Michael!"
Hee hee. The wonder of it is that her shrieky performance makes not the slightest dent in that absolute battleship of a great film.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, December 19, 2005 | Permanent
OGIC: Long time no meme...
But this one appealed: courtesy of Girish, the Meme of Four.
Without further ado, and very much off the top of my head:
Four jobs you've had in your life: antique store shopgirl, technical writer, assistant editor, managing editor. Yes, most of these are practically the same job.
Four movies you could watch over and over: Out of Sight, The Lady Eve, Celine and Julie Go Boating, Kicking and Screaming.
Four places you've lived: Chicago, New York City, Cambridge, Providence.
Four TV shows you love to watch: Gilmore Girls, Hockey Night in Canada (when in Detroit), Da Ali G Show, America's Next Top Model (there, I admitted it).
Four places you've been on vacation: Prague, Edinburgh, Las Vegas, No. Whitefield, Maine.
Four websites you visit daily: Colby Cosh, The Gurgling Cod, Outer Life, Pandacam DC.
Four of your favorite foods: golabki, jambalaya, caesar salad, coconut cake.
Four places you'd rather be: Leelanau County, the Hall of Fame, the British Museum, and the place I'm going tomorrow, and not a moment too soon: Sterling Heights, Michigan.
Perhaps Terry will play. We can hope, but he also needs his rest. All other bloggers are not excused.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, December 19, 2005 | Permanent
TT: Home again
I can’t say I did much over the weekend in Smalltown, U.S.A., other than venturing out to buy groceries. My mother and I watched the excellent film version of The Trip to Bountiful on Saturday afternoon, and she gave a small birthday party for my sister-in-law last night, though I ended up being the center of attention, everybody naturally wanting to hear all about my recent medical adventures. Otherwise I read, chipped away at my accumulated e-mail, made a few phone calls, and continued to listen to music, something I’d all but stopped doing in the last few weeks of my illness.
Here, for what it’s worth and in case you’re interested, are some of the things I’ve most enjoyed hearing in recent days, listed in no particular order:
• Dave Frishberg, “Eastwood Lane”
• Couperin “The Mysterious Barricades” (played by Igor Kipnis)
• Dave Brubeck Quartet, “Don’t Worry ’Bout Me”
• Marvin Gaye, “Got to Give It Up”
• Bill Charlap, “Written in the Stars”
• Pat Metheny, “Midwestern Night’s Dream”
• Gary Burton, “Gorgeous”
• Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (played by Nathan Milstein)
• Julia Dollison, “Poses”
• Aimee Mann, “Save Me”
• Grainger “Brigg Fair” (sung by Peter Pears)
• Doc Watson, “Let the Cocaine Be”
• Stan Getz, “Blood Count”
• Stan Kenton, “Young Blood”
• Stephen Sondheim, “Being Alive” (sung by Dean Jones, from the original-cast album of Company)
• Jonatha Brooke, “Because I Told You So”
• Oleta Adams, “Get Here”
• Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphoses (last movement, conducted by George Szell)
• Mabel Mercer, “The Best Is Yet to Come”
• Copland “Down a Country Lane” (played by Leo Smit)
• Luciana Souza, “Doce de Coco”
• Tournemire Choral sur le "Victimae paschali" (played by the composer)
• Diana Krall, “Black Crow”
• Miles Davis, “Blue in Green” (from Kind of Blue)
• Dave’s True Story, “Blue Nile”
Today I plan to get my hair cut, start writing my drama column for Friday’s Wall Street Journal, take a nap, answer some more e-mail, take a walk through the neighborhood, eat three healthy meals, and watch On the Waterfront with my mother. I expect it will be a good day. As a friend of mine
likes to say, every day above ground is a good day.
OGIC: Fortune cookie
"Catherine sometimes started at the boldness of her own surmises, and sometimes hoped or feared that she had gone too far; but they were supported by such appearances as made their dismissal impossible."
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, December 19, 2005 | Permanent
A friend and I made plans to go to the movies Friday night, and he more or less handed me the reins when it came to picking the movie. Ah, carte blanche. No wrangling, wheeling, dealing, or tradeoffs of the sort that, in ensuring neither party is bitterly opposed to the chosen fare, ensure as well that neither party is delighted with it. Christmas had come early.
On the strength of this review, I chose The Family Stone, a decision in which I was only galvanized by a different critic's snide, pun-infested look far down upon it from up high. When a critic spends a paragraph dictating what "a better movie"—i.e., a different movie—would have done, rather than reviewing the movie at hand, you know it must have confounded her. And any movie that confounded Manohla Dargis is a movie I'm game for. (Another strange reaction came from David Edelstein: he likes the movie but thinks the insular, judgmental Stones are the ideal family. They're not even the protagonists. What a less interesting movie he saw than the one I did.)
Good thing, too. My friend and I both were taken with The Family Stone, for many of the reasons that Armond White's typically provocative review corrals. The other possibility had been Pride and Prejudice, which I think would have been his own choice. So as the movie began I was a little nervous about having steered us in this other direction, not knowing whether it would pan out. But as the early plot—a comedy of manners that cuts far closer to the bone than many of its kind—played out, I thought that the spirit of Jane Austen was within shouting distance even here. Not the Austen of Pride and Prejudice, but the author of Northanger Abbey, a novel in which the gothic terror feared and dreaded by the heroine is all in her head, but the social terror attending her scrutiny by the family she wishes to marry into is very real.
Although it begins as a straightforward, funny-unsettling examination of such terror, the movie broadens its focus to the search for love and acceptance more generally, and gets much more complicated. It tries to do a lot, and for the most part succeeds even as it veers from the cool, surgical dissection of social mores—with a central scene in this vein that forgoes the anesthesia but is as electrifying to watch as it is painful—to slapstick physical comedy to romantic farce to frank sentiment (I'm trying to steer away from naming it sentimentality, but White calls the movie "intelligently sentimental," which is another viable solution). There are a lot of balls in the air by the end. Everything is under the control of the director, but just. I watched the whole thing with my heart in my throat.
Diane Keaton, whom I was laughing at just last week while rewatching The Godfather, Part II on DVD, is very subtle here, and Sarah Jessica Parker is like some whole new actress you've never seen before. As White points out, there are superficial similarities between this character and Carrie Bradshaw, but by Parker's second scene any fugitive thoughts of Sex and the City are left in the dust. Her vulnerability here has nothing to do with the faux vulnerability—curable by the right shoes—of her television role. She's fantastic.
Here's a little bit of the White review that proved so decisive for me:
Despite awkward shifts of tone in Bezucha’s emotional balancing act, he makes up for his flaws whenever he looks into Meredith’s and the Stones’ crooked hearts. In one such sequence Susannah, the film’s quietest character, sits alone at night to watch Meet Me in St. Louis on TV. (“This is my favorite part.”) Images of Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” are juxtaposed with a montage of each character isolated with their dashed or unexpected hopes. Garland’s plaintive, beseeching voice underscores Bezucha’s vision.
Understand: This is a great moment because it’s not ironic. It’s felt. The same way Vincente Minnelli felt it and meant it 61 years ago only, now, in modern terms—challenging the antipathy and unease that fills the Stone household. The pixilated TV distortion of Garland’s cartoon-vivid face looms ghost-like, an unreachable idealization of what family life should be, poignantly played against Stone hard reality.
Oh, and it's a laugh riot, too. Go go go.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Monday, December 19, 2005 | Permanent
Friday, December 24, 2004
I think of you with every breath I take
And every breath becomes a sigh,
Not a sign of despair
But a sign that I care for you.
I hear your name with every breath I take,
On every breeze that wanders by,
And your name is a song
I'll remember the long years through.
Even though I walk alone you guide me.
In the darkness you light my way,
And all the while inside me
Love seems to say, someday, someday.
And when I sleep you keep my heart awake,
But when I wake from dreams divine,
Every breath that I take
Is a prayer that I'll make you mine.
Leo Robin, "With Every Breath I Take" (music by Ralph Rainger)
TT: Plan B
I was awakened on Thursday by the sound of clanking and hammering in the basement. It seems that one of my mother’s half-century-old pipes picked the middle of the Great Blizzard of 2004 as the perfect time to spring a leak. Fortunately, my brother had the day off, discovered the leak by chance, and fixed it with minimal fuss. He can do that kind of thing, as well as every other kind of thing in the world that requires mechanical skill, whereas I can’t do much of anything beyond hanging and rehanging the pictures in the Teachout Museum. My poor father did his best to teach me how to fend for myself in the world of inanimate objects, but my brother scooped up all the relevant chromosomes, forcing me to live by my wits. Not that he’s short on wits, but he’s the strong, silent type (which didn’t stop him from winning a seat on the Smalltown City Council—he’s the family pol!), and as a rule he prefers doing things to discussing them. Our common ground is narrow—Westerns and family matters pretty much cover it—but we’re very close, especially for two such dissimilar folk, and if I were to find myself in the kind of jam that required bail or a getaway car, I’d call him first.
The blizzard is over, by the way, and though there's just short of a foot of snow on the ground, life in Smalltown is slowly returning to normal. My brother and I took care of the day's errands, after which I spent the afternoon working on my Washington Post column and reading one of the books I brought home to prepare for my next Commentary essay. I haven’t heard from Our Girl, but the Mutant has re-established contact via e-mail, and other holiday-related news is trickling into my mailbox from New York and Washington: it seems that one of my blogfriends is en route to an ashram in California, while another is headed for a dentist’s chair. I also learned, much to my delight, that Rachel Howard, the West Coast dance critic-blogger, praised All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine in the San Francisco Chronicle. (This link will take you there.) That’s my kind of Christmas present!
Alas, it turns out that our plans for Friday have been derailed by the weatherman. The surviving members of my mother's family, plus such children and grandchildren as are within reach, have been getting together on Christmas Eve since time immemorial. My mother didn't feel up to cooking for the whole clan this year, though, so we decided to eat out instead, and El Bracero being the only restaurant in Smalltown that’s open tonight, we figured on having chimichangas for Christmas. That was the plan, anyway, but the highways aren't yet clear enough to allow the older siblings to drive with confidence, so our Christmas-eve family dinner has been cancelled. Sad news, to be sure, but my mother and I mean to make the most of it. Instead of slipping and sliding along the snow-covered streets of Smalltown, we'll stay home, bake a turkey roll, watch Miracle on 34th Street (which I've never seen, believe it or not), and be grateful that we're in the same place at the same time.
I don’t expect to be posting again until next week. Wherever you are and whatever you're doing between now and then, may it lift up your hearts as high as being with my family has lifted mine.
Thursday, December 23, 2004
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past,
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
Robert Frost, "The Oven Bird"
TT: Underneath it all
As of this moment, Smalltown is covered with ten inches of snow, and more is supposed to come before morning. My brother spent the better part of the day skidding around southeast Missouri in a truck. Not me. I went outside just once, trudging to the end of the driveway to collect today’s Smalltown Standard Democrat (no hyphen, please). Though my mother begged me to pull on a pair of my late father’s boots first, I ventured forth into the winter night without even bothering to don a coat. I’m pretty sure she wanted to spank me when I came back in, but instead she settled for giving me a lecture about the dangers of catching cold. That done, we ate dinner, watched the weather on TV, then switched over to The Blues Brothers on AMC. I don’t expect there’ll be any more trips to the video store until Sunday, meaning that we’ve got to make the four movies I rented yesterday last until then.
For those of you who just joined us, I’m home for the holidays, and “About Last Night” is emanating from a rickety old card table set up in the middle of the guest bedroom of my mother’s house in Smalltown, U.S.A., located midway between St. Louis and Memphis. Smalltown is dialup country, meaning that it takes forever for me to tap my blogmail (thanks to all of you who wrote about my recent postings, by the way!), while most of my preferred blogs and Web sites load even more slowly. On the other hand, it’s not entirely unpleasant to be semi-detached from the outside world, and I can always count on the Standard Democrat to take care of my urgent news-related needs. Here are some of Wednesday’s headlines: Races Heating Up for School Boards. Hefty Fine Is Handed Down. Post Office Working Overtime. Holiday Drivers Must Take Extra Precautions. Casket Truck Driver Busted. Party Planned.
Needless to say, my mother and I haven’t been seeing many people since the snow started falling, but we did run into Mrs. Yeakey, my former babysitter, in Wal-Mart on Tuesday afternooon, just before we went home to hunker down for the big blow. Improbable as it may seem, the woman who took care of me four decades ago whenever my parents felt the need for a night on the town is alive, well, and as spry-looking as ever. (She'd attained a certain age even then, meaning that she must be eighty or so now.) Nobody ever gets very far away from his past in a small town—there’s always somebody just around the corner who knew you when you were in kneepants, and has at least one embarrassing story to tell.
I called Our Girl in Chicago in Detroit (she’s visiting her own family for the holidays) and the Mutant in New York (she isn’t) earlier this evening. Neither one was home, though, so my mother and I decided to live dangerously and raid our dwindling video stash for a second feature, Napoleon Dynamite. You might not think a seventy-four-year-old woman from Smalltown would find such fare amusing, but she’s always been receptive to off-center comedies, this one included.
We said goodnight after the credits rolled, and I set the thermostat and withdrew to my bedroom, there to check my e-mail one last time and choose a book with which to read myself to sleep. I looked out the window a moment ago and saw that the footprints I made when I picked up the Standard Democrat have vanished beneath a fresh layer of snow. I can’t see any tire tracks, either, which isn’t surprising. It’s been hours since anyone drove down our street. The only sounds I hear are the muffled whirr of the winter wind, the rumble of the downstairs furnace, and the unsure buzz of the ancient alarm clock on my nightstand that would wake me up if I needed to be anywhere on time come morning, which I don’t. Maybe I’ll do a little work on one of my unfinished pieces tomorrow—or maybe not. I haven’t yet tired of the exquisite privilege of having nothing to do.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 23, 2004 | Permanent
Wednesday, December 22, 2004
Sleepwalking through the all-night drugstore
Baptized in fluorescent light
I found religion in the greeting-card aisle
Now I know Hallmark was right
And every pop song on the radio
Is suddenly speaking to me
Art may imitate life
But life imitates TV.
Ani DiFranco, “Superhero”
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 23, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Waiting for snow in Smalltown
A friend writes:
How is it to be home? What do your days consist of? Tell me tell me.
My days are for the most part happily uneventful. I always sleep late. I usually take my mother out to lunch (nowhere fancy—there aren’t any fancy places to take her in Smalltown!), after which we run whatever errands may need running. I brought home a couple of unfinished pieces that require my attention, but I haven’t yet started working on them. My brother and his family, who live three blocks away, frequently poke their heads in after dinner; otherwise, my mother and I do the dishes, watch a little TV or a movie, and chat contentedly about old times, local gossip, and whatever I may have been up to since my last visit home. She goes to bed around ten-thirty, after which I surf the Web, answer the day’s e-mail, blog a bit, and read myself to sleep. I packed four new books, David Thomson’s The Whole Equation, Ada Louise Huxtable’s brief life of Frank Lloyd Wright, the new Willem de Kooning biography, and the galleys of Doug Ramsey’s biography of Paul Desmond—more than I needed, but I’ve always been overambitious when it comes to holiday reading.
That’s normally about the size of it, but yesterday was different. We’d been talking about driving to Cape Girardeau to polish off our Christmas shopping, and when the weatherman told us on Monday that it was going to snow on Wednesday, we figured we’d better stop procrastinating and get the rest of it done while we still could. It happened that my mother’s boss was buying lunch in Cape on Tuesday for all the girls in the office (my septuagenarian mother, who continues to work in the mornings, finds it highly gratifying to be thought of as “one of the girls”), so I joined the party, and after lunch we got in my rental car and whizzed around town, keeping an eye on the cloud-filled sky in between stops. Once we’d worked our way to the bottom of the checklist, we turned around and headed for home. I popped a Louis Armstrong album into the CD player and told stories about Louis’ New Orleans childhood as we listened to “Blues in the Night” and “Just One of Those Things” and watched the clouds grow thicker.
Back in Smalltown, we picked up some just-in-case groceries, filled a prescription, bought one last present at Wal-Mart, and rented four videos that I thought my mother might enjoy seeing, The Secret Lives of Dentists, Napoleon Dynamite, Open Range (she likes Westerns), and Stuck on You. We got home just in time to catch the five o’clock weather on TV. It started raining around ten, right on time, and I went to bed with the benign glow of achievement that comes from knowing that you’re as ready as you can possibly be for a two-day blow.
I woke before sunrise, looked out my bedroom window, and saw at least two inches of snow glittering beneath the streetlights of Hickory Drive. Content at last, I got back in bed and returned to my mundane dreams.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 22, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Entries from an unkept diary
• To pick up on the theme of an earlier posting, my newest friend is in the same key as I am—or, to use a metaphor drawn from a different realm, we’re on the same page, and we realized it almost as soon as we met. A person who knows us both well told me that she thought we were "long-lost siblings, separated at birth and finally together again." Such intense and immediate rapport is a gift akin to grace, and thus never to be taken lightly, not least because it is so rare.
Only yesterday, she ended an e-mail to me with the following sentence: “Hoping your dreams entertain—let me know if any good ones grant you the luck of remembering.” As I read it, I asked myself, What part of my destiny is to be made manifest by my having found a friend capable of saying such a thing to me within days of our first meeting?
• Being a writer is a strange business: you have an experience, and right in the middle of it words start taking shape in your head. The trick, I suppose, is not to let the words get between you and the experience. I'm usually pretty good about that, but I can recall more than one occasion in my life when I found myself thinking coolly detached thoughts in the least likely and least appropriate of circumstances, from intimate moments to deathbed scenes. I can’t think of many traits that are less attractive, since the point of life is to live it while it’s happening, but the writer in me is always on duty, and though he frequently nods off at his post, it doesn’t take much to wake him up.
• I don’t often surprise Our Girl in Chicago, but I brought the trick off the other day when I mentioned in passing that I’d never in my life asked a woman out simply because I thought she was cute. Our Girl was astonished to hear this, and told me so.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 22, 2004 | Permanent
Tuesday, December 21, 2004
"Let your characters talk a little longer about a little less."
True Boardman (quoted in Leonard Maltin, The Great American Broadcast: A Celebration of Radio's Golden Age)
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 22, 2004 | Permanent
TT: A wedding
I haven’t taken part in many weddings in my life, and none at all in recent years, so when my friend Laura asked me to read the Eighty-Fourth Psalm at her wedding last Saturday, I juggled my holiday plans and found a way to get myself to the church on time.
It wasn't as easy as it sounds. Laura is a writer who's been living in Washington, D.C., for the past few years, but like me, she was born and raised in a small Missouri town, and when it came time for her to marry, she chose to tie the knot at home. It’s a four-hour drive from her town to mine, a bit too long to be casually undertaken in winter weather. Fortunately, she scheduled her wedding on the same day I was planning to go home for Christmas, so instead of driving straight from St. Louis to Smalltown, U.S.A., as I normally do, I picked up a rental car at the airport, drove to the church, got Laura married off, turned around, and headed for home.
A small-town church wedding is a thing unto itself, especially if you were to compare it to the last wedding I attended, a catered affair held in the banquet room of a fancy Westchester County restaurant and presided over by a wisecracking rabbi. Small-town men of the cloth are rarely heard to crack wise at weddings, nor does the food served at the wedding dinners over which they preside typically run to the overelaborate. Laura's menu, for instance, consisted of baked ham and hashbrown casserole, served up piping hot in the fellowship hall of the First Christian Church of Columbia, Missouri. I can't tell you how many meals I’ve eaten in such halls over the years, none of them fancy and all of them good, though this would be the first one I’d been served while listening to the sounds of a local DJ who specialized in such Fifties standards as Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” Not exactly the sort of thing you expect to hear in a fellowship hall, I thought with a smile as I sipped my non-alcoholic punch.
The sanctuary of the church was bedecked with poinsettas and lit by candles, and every pew as far as my dazzled eye could see was jammed full of people who acted as though they knew one another, which they probably did. Having changed hurriedly into my travel-crumpled suit in the men’s room, I waited for my cue in the vestibule, eavesdropping on the family and friends of the bride and groom and delighting in snatches of the kind of talk you rarely hear at a Westchester County wedding (“So how do you like my new suit, honey? Didn’t I tell you I was gonna buy me a suit for the wedding?”). Then I took my place by the pulpit and watched Laura walk down the aisle, and at the appointed moment I stood and spoke the ancient words she had asked me to read, not daring to catch her eye for fear of choking up:
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young—a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
I sat down again to watch my beloved friend embark on her new life. She looked flushed and radiant and determined, and I, perhaps not surprisingly, found myself tugged between hope for her future and curiosity about my own. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is uncomfortable for me at best, and I’d been at loose emotional ends for the past couple of weeks. (You know your emotions are up in the air when every piece of music you hear, good and bad alike, makes you cry.) Now I was sitting in a place redolent of my long-ago youth, at once utterly alien and utterly familiar, feeling not unlike the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, who wandered through her palace at midnight, stopping all the clocks, trying to turn her back on time.
I will…I will…you may kiss the bride. A kilted bagpiper stationed in the balcony struck up the Ode to Joy, Laura and her Ben marched back down the aisle, and a few minutes later I was dishing up hashbrown casserole and wondering whether I’d be able to make it all the way to Smalltown, U.S.A., before bedtime. I’d warned my mother that I’d probably spend the night in a motel just south of St. Louis, but the clock on the wall of the fellowship hall told me that I could be home by midnight, weather and coincidence permitting, so I kissed the bride and her sisters, got in my car, and drove around town until I found an exit to the highway, alone with my double-edged memories.
To the solitary stranger, the highways of Missouri are flat and harsh-looking in wintertime. Only the traveler for whom they point toward home can find anything like beauty in mile upon mile of leafless trees and drab brown fields. To me they are as lovely as a Corot—but only when the sun lights up the vast blue dome of sky. At night you can see nothing but the thin ribbon of road and the cold silver stars hanging above the plains, and you switch on the radio half from boredom and half from fear of the dark. I skated impatiently across the dial, finding nothing but slick-sounding FM stations whose music seemed untouched by human hands. I pushed a different button, and out of the misty static of the AM band came a sound so recognizable that I stopped breathing for one astonished moment. It was the voice of Porter Wagoner, introducing a commercial for Martha White Flour. I had accidentally tuned in WSM in Nashville, and now I was listening to the Grand Ole Opry, wafted on the frigid night air all the way from Opryland, U.S.A., to the waiting radio of a rental car headed east on I-70 for St. Louis and points beyond.
Next to nothing had changed about the Opry since I'd last heard it: Porter Wagoner soon gave way to Whispering Bill Anderson, who in turn introduced Del McCoury, the dean of bluegrass, who sang “Blue Christmas” in the high, hacksaw tenor he had honed during his years on the road with Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys. I remembered with perfect clarity how it felt to sit in the balcony of the Ryman Auditorium when I was sixteen years old, looking down on the distant stage that all the greats of country music had trod. Once my mother and her father had listened to the Opry every Saturday night, and for a brief moment my teenaged self had actually dreamed of playing there.
Life had carried me far away from that dream, just as the Opry itself had moved from the penny-plain Ryman to an expensive new home on the outskirts of town. Even Martha White Flour, the cheerful-voiced announcer proclaimed, had a Web site now. Change and decay in all around I see? No, not really. Porter Wagoner and Whispering Bill, after all, were still singing of lost love in the weather-whacked voices I had known as a boy, and their mournful laments were somehow transformed into tidings of comfort and joy as I rolled through the night. Thirty years had slipped away since I'd packed my bags and gone forth to find my place in the world, yet I was coming home again to the same house on the same street in the same town in the same corner of Missouri, listening to the same music. Am I, then, the same person? I asked myself. And does it matter if I’m not?
As I pulled off I-70 to steer around St. Louis, I took my cell phone out of my shoulder bag and called my mother. “I’m making pretty good time,” I told her, “so I think I’ll come all the way home tonight. Don’t stay up for me—I won’t get in until half past midnight—but leave the porch light on.”
“I will,” she said. “Pull off if you get sleepy, all right? Do you promise?”
“I will, Mom,” I said. “I promise.”
Two hours later I eased into the driveway of her house, unlocked the back door as quietly as I could, and tiptoed down the hall to my old bedroom, dragging my battered suitcases behind me. Whoever I am, I'm home again, I told myself as I pushed open the door and saw the homemade redwood bookshelf and the faded portrait of Abraham Lincoln that has hung by the door to the bathroom for as long as I can remember. I crawled into bed, pulled the covers up to my chin, listened for the freight-train whistles keening halfway across town, and slowly drifted off to sleep, a worn-out, middle-aged sparrow come home to rest.
Monday, December 20, 2004
It might be a fight like you see on the screen
A swain getting slain for the love of a queen
Some great Shakespearean scene
Where a ghost and a prince meet
And everyone ends in mincemeat.
Howard Dietz, “That’s Entertainment” (music by Arthur Schwartz)
TT: In your ear
Veteran readers of this blog know that I’m a great fan of old-time radio, and I like nothing better than to spend an otherwise uneventful morning leafing through some detail-packed book whose subject is the shows of the Thirties and Forties in which my parents delighted. Today I’ve been amusing myself with Gerald Nachman’s Raised on Radio, which bears the extensively informative subtitle “In Quest of The Lone Ranger, Jack Benny, Amos ’n’ Andy, The Shadow, Mary Noble, The Great Gildersleeve, Fibber McGee and Molly, Bill Stern, Our Miss Brooks, Henry Aldrich, The Quiz Kids, Mr. First Nighter, Fred Allen, Vic and Sade, Jack Armstrong, Arthur Godfrey, Bob and Ray, The Barbour Family, Henry Morgan, Our Gal Sunday, Joe Friday, and Other Lost Heroes from Radio’s Heyday.” (If none of these names rings a bell, go here and start nosing around. You can listen for free to one show from each series.)
I just ran across the following paragraph, which is so evocative that I wanted to share it with you. It describes the on-air efforts of radio horrormaster Arch Oboler, best known for the series Lights Out:
Oboler was a speedy writer who, at his own dinner parties, would excuse himself at 11 P.M. and return at 1 A.M. with a finished script. He often got ideas from listening to sound-effects records, and took special delight in devising grotesque effects. His scare tactics included the sound of a man frying in the electric chair (sizzling bacon), bones being snapped (spareribs or Life Savers crushed between teeth), heads being severed (chopped cabbages), a knife slicing through a man’s body (a slab of pork cut in two), and, most grisly of all, somebody eating human flesh (wet noodles squished with a bathroom plunger). Oboler cooked up a delicious pantryful of terror. The series’ most celebrated audio effect—a man being turned inside out—was achieved by turning a watery rubber glove inside out to the accompaniment of crushed berry baskets, to simulate broken bones.
Eeuuww! Foley “artists” be damned: that was the golden age of sound effects.
Saturday, December 27, 2003
“Class presidents and football heroes, he had finally come to learn, required careful and suspicious watching. They were like the potted hyacinths and daffodils that he sometimes bought for Sylvia in midwinter—spectacular but they often yellowed around the edges once you brought them home. The same was true with bright young men who had come along too fast. They were tired because of premature effort, or else overconfidence had made them arrogant. At best the cards were stacked against someone who made good too young. Willis could see now that he had once been in this same dubious category. He could no longer wonder, as he once had, that Mr. Beakney had made no effort to keep him. In fact Mr. Beakney must have been relieved to let him go—gray suit, trimmed hair, polished Oxfords, sharp mind and everything—because he had come along too fast for the age of twenty-nine.”
John P. Marquand, Sincerely, Willis Wayde
TT: Afraid to look
It takes forever for me to access my e-mail via a dial-up connection, so I haven't even looked. No doubt the bag will be overflowing by the time I return to New York on Monday, at which time I'll see what you all wrote this week.
Incidentally, I haven't forgotten that I promised to answer some of last week's accumulated e-mail on the blog during my visit to Smalltown, U.S.A. I still mean to do just that, but once I got here, it struck me (perhaps wrongly!) that at least some of you might be no less interested in what I was up to out here in southeast Missouri. For those who aren't, relief is on the way.
posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, December 27, 2003 | Permanent
"One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan—or at least from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan."
Norman Podhoretz, Making It
posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, December 27, 2003 | Permanent
Friday, December 26, 2003
TT: Among the Jello molds
Earlier this evening, three generations of family converged on my mother’s house in Smalltown, U.S.A., there to eat dessert and talk. We’d just dined together in the banquet room of the Grecian Steak House—the first time my mother’s family has ever eaten its collective Christmas dinner in a restaurant, or at any time other than on the night before Christmas. Things went surprisingly well, too, considering that we’d torn up a half-century’s worth of family tradition in one fell swoop. Two dozen of us crammed ourselves into the living room, desserts balanced on knees, and discussed in detail all the things that small-town families like to talk about whenever they get together. (More often than not, illness is the number-one topic, closely followed by restaurants.)
I don’t know how typically American my mother’s family is nowadays, though there was a time not so long ago when we would have seemed far more typical than we do now. My mother was born and raised in the country, though not on a working farm (her father worked in a shoe factory). Most of her family lives within a two-hour drive of Smalltown and its environs. We all work for a living, pursuing a wide variety of blue- and white-collar jobs. One of us is divorced, two childless, the rest ensconced in more or less conventional nuclear families. Only about half of us have college degrees.
I’ve always been the odd man out. I’m the only member of the extended family who lives in New York City, the only one who is a member of what Joseph Epstein calls the "verbal class," and the only one to have become seriously interested in the arts (though the wife of one of my cousins is an amateur painter whose favorite artist is John Singer Sargent). Everyone is proud of me for having made my way in the world, but only in the most general of senses, and I suspect that no more than three of my relatives, not counting my mother, read my last book.
None of this bothers me. I’m glad to be a self-made man, and I also find it surprisingly useful to have been born into a small-town family. For one thing, the experience of growing up in southeast Missouri made me a cultural realist. (I learned early on that there’s no such thing as a really famous writer.) It has also given me an understanding of Red America not shared by many New Yorkers of my acquaintance. I’ve changed a lot since I left town in 1974, but part of me remains deeply rooted in the place where I grew up. I’m like a walking, talking focus group: I almost always know what will fly in southeast Missouri, and what will flop.
Given all this, I doubt you’ll be surprised to hear that I think The Great Gatsby is the great American novel, but I also have a special place in my heart for a much less well-known novel by John P. Marquand called Point of No Return. Published in 1949, it’s the story of an ambitious young boy from a small town in Massachusetts who makes his way to Manhattan, there to become the vice president of a small private bank. Point of No Return is no Horatio Alger tale—Charles Gray, the hero, is deeply alienated and riddled with self-doubt—but neither is Marquand cynical about the complex experience he portrays. He describes with great psychological sensitivity the long journey from Clyde, Massachusetts, to the suburbs of New York City, and though Point of No Return isn’t a great novel, I’ve never read any other book, whether fiction or non-fiction, that did a better job of putting the feelings of a man like Charles Gray on paper. My life wasn’t much like his, but some of my feelings were, and I always think of him—and of Clyde—whenever I spend an evening with my mother’s family.
posted by terryteachout @ Saturday, December 27, 2003 | Permanent
TT: De profundis
Where are you, OGIC? The world longs to hear your voice!
Speaking of my sister-in-law (see below), I mentioned at the dinner table yesterday that I was going to Chicago next weekend. "So," she replied, "will you be seeing the Girl?" It took me two beats before I realized that she was referring to Our Girl in Chicago.
TT: A matter of perspective
My mother, who like most septuagenarians doesn't quite grasp what a blog is, just poked her head in my bedroom and asked, "Are you actually working on something, or are you just piddling?"
Possible answer: "Why, Mom, I'm busy shaping the cultural conversation."
Probable response: "I'd rather you took out the trash."
Here's a better answer: if all of you out there in the blogosphere will be so kind as to click on this link and place an advance order for A Terry Teachout Reader (out in May from Yale University Press), then I can tell my mother I was working. Otherwise, I was just piddling.
(P.S. Even if you don't want to order the book just yet, click on the link anyway and you can see the dust jacket!)
TT: A Christmas story
In case you're just joining us, I'm blogging this week from Smalltown, U.S.A, the southeast Missouri town where I grew up and where most of my family still lives. My sister-in-law, who lives in Smalltown and reads this blog from time to time, e-mailed yesterday to inform me that she and my brother now have a high-speed modem, thank you very much. (I had previously mentioned in this space that I was having trouble getting used to the dial-up connection at my mother's house.) Of all the new wrinkles that have come to Smalltown, U.S.A., since my last visit home, that one might just be the most significant.
I haven’t gotten around to replying to Felix Salmon’s recent comment on what I wrote about the Metropolitan Opera’s radio broadcasts, but it’s relevant here, so I’ll mention it now. In case you didn’t see my posting, I was writing in response to an article by Tony Tommasini, the chief classical music critic of the New York Times, in which he explained why it was a bad thing that the Met broadcasts, which have lost their corporate funding, might be in danger of cancellation. I begged to differ:
[T]he future of classical radio lies not in what has come to be called "terrestrial radio" (i.e., conventional radio broadcasting) but in satellite and Web-based radio, which make it possible to "narrowcast" a wider variety of programs aimed at smaller audiences. I suspect that’s where the Met really belongs—not on terrestrial radio. And if I had to guess, I’d say that the Tony Tommasinis of today would be more likely to listen to the Met on their computers than on high-quality radios bought by their parents.
(In his original piece, Tony had reminisced about how he’d discovered opera by listening to the Met broadcasts as a boy.)
Here’s part of Felix’s response:
The Met radio broadcasts reach 11 million people – vastly more than will listen to classical music on their computers worldwide over the course of a year. Tommasini makes the point that the broadcasts "have been a cultural lifeline for generations of listeners, both those who live in places far removed from any opera company and those who may live just a subway ride from Lincoln Center but can't afford to attend". Teachout, it would seem, would restrict them to the lucky inhabitants of the affluent side of the digital divide, those with satellite radios and broadband internet connections.
One of Felix’s correspondents went even further, calling my post "unseemly and elitist…The idea that only people who have broadband ‘deserve’ opera is ludicrous." (Quotation marks notwithstanding, the word "deserve" appears nowhere in my posting.)
I didn’t reply at once because what Felix wrote seemed to me so comprehensively wrong-headed that I didn’t quite know where to start—and as for what his correspondent said, I thought it was just plain dumb. Now I think my sister-in-law has taken care of it for me. After all, you never could listen to the Met in Smalltown, U.S.A., at least not via terrestrial radio, but you can now have a broadband connection to the Web at an affordable price. If broadband Web access is available in a tiny town located two hours from the nearest medium-large city, it'll soon be available just about anywhere in America—and if ordinary middle-class people like my brother and sister-in-law think it’s worth having, the rest of the country will surely follow in short order. So perhaps the time has come to stop talking about high-speed Internet access as a luxury available only to those on "the affluent side of the digital divide" and start thinking of it as the coming norm.
I wouldn’t say that everything’s up to date in Smalltown, but I can report a few other things that are worthy of note. We have two McDonald’s, for instance, and we’re on our second Wal-Mart, this one a 24-hour "supercenter" (and yes, it was jammed to the eyeballs today). You can’t buy the New York Times in Smalltown, but there are two coin boxes selling The Wall Street Journal, one next to the post office and one in front of the newly remodeled grocery store on the north side of town. Not that it matters, since I read this morning’s Times (see below) on line, the same way I read it each morning in Manhattan.
Here’s a one-hand-other-hand story about cultural change in southeast Missouri. After we opened our Christmas presents yesterday afternoon, I drove my mother up to Collegetown, U.S.A., to look at the holiday lights. My plan had been to take her to dinner, too, but I’d been away long enough for it to have slipped my mind that folks around here don’t eat out on Christmas. Every restaurant in Collegetown, even the ones next to the motels on the highway, was closed up tight as a drum—except for the Chinese places. Now, I don’t make a habit of eating Chinese food in southeast Missouri (I get more than enough of it in Manhattan), but desperate times called for desperate measures, so I took my mother to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, fully expecting the worst. I’ve eaten some pretty horrendous Chinese food in the Midwest—in fact, I’m old enough to remember the days of chow mein and egg foo yung—but this place served perfectly adequate versions of all the usual dishes, and the sesame chicken and hot and sour soup were actually pretty good. We stuffed ourselves and laughed all the way home.
I saw my first episode of The Simple Life the other night, and the thought occurred to me that it might be interesting to spend a year living in and blogging from Smalltown, U.S.A. I’m sure life here is a lot more complicated than it looks, and I’d love to be able to scratch the surface more deeply than usual and find out exactly how people in my home town really feel about such puzzling cultural phenomena as Paris Hilton and Howard Dean. (Which reminds me of a one-liner I saw on the Web last week: did you hear about the town so small that all the Episcopalians were straight?) As it stands now, I never get to do more than sniff the air and do a little light eavesdropping. Maybe Smalltown is actually throbbing with undigested modernity—or maybe not. Either way, it’s a nice place to visit, at Christmastime or any other time, and most especially in the middle of an orange alert.
UPDATE: Lileks is rocking this week—now he’s got a posting on his father’s new satellite radio. Take that, Felix Salmon!
"What is the Ninth Symphony compared to a pop tune played by a hurdy-gurdy and a memory!"
Karl Kraus, Beim Wort genommen
Thursday, December 25, 2003
TT: Out of many, many
Bruce Weber has an excellent article in today’s New York Times about the state of the Broadway musical—excellent because he talked to a lot of people in the business and got candid answers. This is one piece that really needs to be read in its entirety, not quoted piecemeal (you can read the whole thing here), but if there’s a money graf, this is it:
"You could spell whither either way," said Jack Viertel,
the artistic director of the Encores! series of musicals in
concert at City Center. "There's a real reluctance on the
part of producers to take on new composers because to some
degree no one is sure what a Broadway show is supposed to
sound like anymore. Is it supposed to sound like Michael
John LaChiusa? Or Alan Menken? If the Broadway sound were
the pop music of the day, which it used to be, it would
sound like hip-hop, but I don't think anyone feels there's
much of a Broadway audience for that at the moment."
What I think Viertel is groping toward—as well as several other people quoted in the piece—is that the success of the "classic" Broadway musical-comedy idiom was in large part a function of the existence of the common culture that began to dissolve in the Sixties, more or less around the time that the Broadway musical began to lose its way.
Here’s another relevant excerpt:
In any case, as rock took over the radio airwaves in the
1960's, songwriters began turning from the stage to the
recording studio. A few songs from Broadway managed to
climb the charts - "The Impossible Dream" from "Man of La
Mancha," for example - but the music of Broadway was being
overwhelmed by the cultural tidal wave that was
transforming the rest of the world.
"I can tell you almost specifically when it changed," said
John Kander, Mr. Ebb's partner. "When we did `Cabaret' in
1966, I was unpacking in my hotel room in Boston, even
before we went to Broadway, and I turned on the radio and
heard five songs from the show. Our next show, in 1968, was
a musical called `The Happy Time,' and I think we got maybe
one recording. So it was right in there that the changeover
The "untheatricality" of rock music is a complicated subject about which I’ve never gotten around to writing. It's far too complicated to go into in a short posting, but I can say that to blame the decline of the Broadway musical on rock is to mistake a symptom for the disease. What happened in the Sixties was that the old-fashioned standard-style ballad ceased to be the lingua franca of American popular music—and that nothing replaced it. Instead, our musical tastes shattered into a million pieces. After the Sixties, there was never again one kind of music to which "everyone" listened. In the absence of that kind of broad-based consensus of taste, popular music began to take a back seat in the mass media to other forms of pop culture.
Anyone old enough to remember The Ed Sullivan Show will recall that Sullivan regularly booked musical-comedy stars, and even presented whole scenes from hit shows. (It was Sullivan who turned West Side Story and Camelot into box-office hits.) Nowadays, there aren’t any prime-time variety shows, because the culture is so deeply fissured that such shows can’t draw a large enough audience to be commercially viable. Similarly, Top 40 has given way to a large number of sharply differentiated formats with minimal overlap. If you ever wondered why David Letterman and Jay Leno almost never bring on their musical guests until the end of the show, that’s the reason: no pop musician, however successful, appeals to a sufficiently large slice of the demographic pie. Were Leno to open the show with a musical act, no matter what it was, a significant number of his viewers would promptly switch to Letterman in search of something more to their liking—and vice versa.
All this means that there is no "universal" musical language in which a Broadway musical can be written. That doesn’t make it impossible to write good musicals, but it does mean that they will almost certainly appeal to niche audiences, not the masses that once flocked to (and bought original-cast albums of) the great musicals of the pre-rock era. For this reason, my guess is that the really interesting musicals of the coming decade will be small-scale, low-budget shows—and that at least some of them will be written for and premiered by opera companies.
TT: And to all a good night
My mother and I just finished watching Holiday Inn and Meet Me in St. Louis on TV. Holiday Inn is a much-loved film whose shining parts are greater than their slightly commonplace sum: Astaire and Crosby, "Say It With Firecrackers," and two terrific Irving Berlin songs, "You’re Easy to Dance With" and "Be Careful, It’s My Heart," that got lost in the looming shadow of "White Christmas." Meet Me in St. Louis, on the other hand, might just be the most underrated of all the great movie musicals. Sure, it’s a bit heavy on the Hollywood nostalgia, but Judy Garland is at her purest and best, Vincente Minnelli’s direction is unobtrusively right, and the score—the score! Was there ever a movie that contained three songs as fine as "The Boy Next Door," "The Trolley Song," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"? (Yes, I know, Top Hat, but that film exists in a realm beyond comparison.) Even the orchestrations, by Conrad Salinger, are exquisite.
I enjoyed tonight’s double feature so much that it almost made me forget how irritated I was by a story I read in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal about how red and green are sooooo passé among today’s cultural tastemakers. Here’s the money quote:
Behind the dimming of the red and green is a culture intent on making over almost everything, from faces to homes to entire lives. Style mavens like Martha Stewart have also trained fans to favor a more neutral palette. "Christmas has got a lot more design-y," says Simon Doonan, creative director at Barneys New York. "People now see their trees as decorative accessories."
Mr. Doonan, who says he eschews all but "ironic" uses of red and green, was asked to do a Christmas tree for this month’s issue of Budget Living magazine. Avoiding a color conundrum, he lopped off dozens of Barbie doll heads and strung them to the tree branches….
To which I say...well, maybe I shouldn't be saying that today.
But enough with the gnashing of teeth. Here on Hickory Drive in Smalltown, U.S.A., the decorations are 100% red and green, the mood is quietly festive, and I’m headed for bed. To all of you out there in the blogosphere who’ve become faithful readers of "About Last Night," OGIC and I wish you the happiest—and safest—of holidays.
See you Friday.
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 25, 2003 | Permanent
Wednesday, December 24, 2003
"Subtlety is the curse of man. It is not found in the deity."
Flannery O’Connor, letter to an anonymous correspondent (1961)
posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, December 25, 2003 | Permanent
TT: A new Christmas color
I wanted to write something about the orange alert, but Lileks did it for me:
Either we look back at the days of Orange with the same remote interest we have today when we see ration stickers in a Bugs Bunny cartoon – or the idea of gradations of concern will strike us a luxury, a contrivance, a flimsy thing that marked the interregnum between the day the war began and the day it flared hot coast to coast. I’m betting on the former. The worst rarely happens. Something just as bad often comes along, but it’s not what we foresaw or worried about. Then we learn that a short period of coping can be preferable to a long period of fearing.
It will end, one way or another. But there won’t be any signing of papers on carrier decks; nothing that tidy. No Times Square parties. It began as a long slow subterranean process where the murderers gather and bond, and the end will be slow and constant and maddeningly indistinct. Imagine boxing gloves unraveling the strands of a thick wet rope; that’s the next ten years. It won’t make sense all the time. The narrative will drift. In 2031 the BBC will put out a 22 hour documentary on the War, and our children will think we all lived in an age of constant peril and heroism.
We will have to remind them that peril and heroism was reserved for those volunteered for a full ration of both. Most of us saw the war on TV. If we felt it at all, it was the pang we got when consulted our 401(k) statements. The stores were full of things; meat and sugar for everyone. The vast majority of Americans hardly felt the war at all – and while that may have been a blessing, it didn’t feel altogether right. There was something about Orange that said we should do something, and we had no idea what that might be.
Read the whole thing here.
The only thing I want to add is that everybody in my home town appears to be aware of the alert, though not much more than that. I got my hair cut yesterday, and the barber wanted to know what it was like flying out of LaGuardia on Monday. When you live in a small town far from the coasts, or from anything remotely resembling a military target, you know you’ll be watching events from afar, not from across the street.
I happened to be visiting my mother on 9/11, and the feeling of dissociation as I saw the horrors unfold on TV was violent. The place where I lived was under attack, yet here I was, sitting in an easy chair in the living room of the house where I grew up, watching the bloodshed as if it were a war movie. Which isn’t to say that people here didn’t feel it: they really did, and they do now. But they feel it differently, unless they have a son or daughter in uniform. That changes everything.
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 24, 2003 | Permanent
TT: Further adventures in Red America
I took my mother to dinner last night at the newest restaurant in town, Ruby Tuesday. It's one of the many franchised "dinner houses" (as they're known in the food business) that dot the American landscape, and its presence in my home town is an anomaly. When I was young, the only restaurants in the area were fried-chicken-and-steak affairs, and there weren't all that many of them. Most families ate at home, and they ate as families, gathering together at the table at a fixed hour to discuss the day's events. Eating out was something you did on Saturday night, usually not all that often.
In time, the major fast-food chains made their way to southeast Missouri, and every new McDonald's and Pizza Hut was a major event. By the time I left home in 1974, there were many such places in town, but nothing much more ambitious. It was the conventional wisdom that "dinner houses" would never take root here, even though they were doing a booming business in the college town 30 miles north of us. Then, last year, an Applebee's opened on the south side of town, and drew customers with a vengeance. It seems that the eating habits of the younger baby boomers and Gen-Xers in town had changed without anybody noticing. They were no longer committed to dinner at the dinner table: wives were working, children busier, and dining out had become, here as elsewhere, less a luxury than a necessity, even in a small town like this.
After Applebee's came Ruby Tuesday, to which I took my mother for the first time on the night before the night before Christmas. It was shiny-new, the waiters were friendly and helpful, and the menu, if not exactly continental, was nonetheless worlds away from what one ate at the Charcoal House circa 1966. I dined on a nicely blackened piece of fish accompanied by rice pilaf and steamed broccoli. As we departed, I noticed that Thomas Dolby's "Blinded by Science," one of the very first rock songs I ever saw featured on MTV, was playing over the restaurant's sound system.
It seemed to me that we both needed a bit of countervailing nostalgia, so we drove around town after dinner and looked at the Christmas lights. They're not as spectacular as they used to be, but I'd still say that one out of three houses in my home town is electrically decorated come late December. Then we came home, watched a Randolph Scott video, and went to bed, there to rest up from the encroaching onslaught of modernity.
(P.S. Speaking of Lileks, he had a nice posting yesterday on holiday lights.)
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 24, 2003 | Permanent
Tuesday, December 23, 2003
"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."
I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)
posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, December 24, 2003 | Permanent
Monday, December 22, 2003
TT: A visit to Red America
I’m always struck by the small things that distinguish my home town in southeast Missouri from my adopted home, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I’d never really noticed until today, for instance, but the only houses that are architecturally "modern" in any recognizable sense are a half-dozen Frank Lloyd Wright knockoffs built in the late Fifties. Similarly, you rarely see reproductions of modern art on anybody’s walls. It’s as though time had stopped in 1900. None of the video stores carries more than a handful of "older" films (i.e., made prior to 1975). I was astonished to find Citizen Kane and Casablanca at the neighborhood video store this afternoon. And while our local cable service offers Turner Classic Movies as part of its regular package, TCM isn’t included in the program guide published each day in the local newspaper. To find out what’s showing, you’ve got to buy TV Guide or go on line.
I went Christmas shopping this morning, driving 30 miles to the nearby college town where most of my former neighbors do their "serious" shopping. It has a medium-sized mall and two movie theaters that show about 10 first-run features on any given day—nothing out of the ordinary, though I did see You Can Count on Me at the older theater a couple of years ago. From my point of view, the most important store in the mall is a Barnes & Noble, the only good-sized bookstore in the immediate vicinity. (The sole bookstore in my home town is a small shop that deals in used paperbacks.) I noticed that none of this year's National Book Award nonfiction nominees was in stock, not even Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana, the winner. On the other hand, I did find five copies of the trade paperback edition of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, a pleasant surprise.
After I finished shopping, I treated myself to a frappuccino in the Starbucks café attached to the bookstore, and took a closer look at the mural on the wall above the serving counter. It portrays an oddly eclectic, vaguely PC assortment of authors seated in an imaginary coffeehouse: Isaac Bashevis Singer, Franz Kafka, Pablo Neruda, Rabindranath Tagore, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, Raymond Chandler, D.H. Lawrence, Carl Sandburg, Edith Wharton, and somebody named Hughes (presumably Richard, the author of A High Wind in Jamaica, though I don’t know what he looked like and so can’t say for sure). I didn’t check, but I doubt if many of them were represented on the shelves of the store.
I’m not being sarcastic or dismissive, by the way. Growing up in a small town gives you a different perspective on chain bookstores, just as it causes you to see the Wal-Mart phenomenon from the point of view of the people for whom such stores are an unimaginable boon. (The first Wal-Mart outside Arkansas was built in my home town.) The Barnes & Noble where I shopped today isn’t remotely close in quality to any big-city bookstore, independent or otherwise, but it’s still a vast improvement on nothing. When I was a boy, people in southeast Missouri went to the library or did without. Now they can drive 30 miles to the Barnes & Noble, or order from amazon.com. Times are changing, slowly but surely—but slowly.
"In spite of his quaint Tory prejudices Dr. Johnson is one of the few persons in recent times that one may term wise without serious qualification because he never dodges or equivocates in dealing with the problem of evil; he never fades away from the fact of evil into some theosophic or sentimental dream."
Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism
Sunday, December 21, 2003
TT: Here I am...
...coming to you live from the dial-up connection of an iBook perched precariously on a 60-year-old card table located in the guest bedroom of my mother's house deep in southeast Missouri, far beyond the reach of any high-culture events not being carried on commercial TV.
Translation: I'm home for Christmas, after a thrilling early-morning battle with a very orange LaGuardia Airport, where lines are long and tempers were already pretty damn short as of six this morning. I shudder to think what it's like by now, which is one reason why it's nice to be in a small town this afternoon. Here's another: it's quiet, and there's no one on the streets. The trees are bare, the sky slate-gray. The nearest mall is 30 miles away. I really do love New York, but it's good to get away (especially after just having seen three plays in three days), and I'm definitely away, and glad to be (except that I'm having a hell of a time getting used to dial-up again).
I should add, however, that I got two hours of sleep last night, and I have a piece to write tonight, so I may not start nibbling at the mail until tomorrow. Nevertheless, my antenna is up, and insofar as this slooooow modem allows me to surf the Web, I'm reconnected to the blogosphere. Like the song says, you're gonna hear from me...later.
In the meantime, hello to Maud, Mr. TMFTML, Old Hag, Cup of Chicha, 2 Blowhards, Sarah Weinman, Cinetrix at Pullquote, Bookslut, Modern Art Notes, Felix Salmon, and all the other cool big-city bloggers whose thoughts you can access by ooching over to the right-hand column and sifting through the blogroll. They'll take up the slack while I readjust to small-town life. And a big old wet kiss to Our Girl in Chicago, who is safely installed among her family in an undisclosed secure location, from which she has promised to post something or other, sooner or later.
Now for a nap.
"A certain amount of brick-throwing might even be a good thing. There comes a moment in the career of most artists, if they are any good, when attacks on their work take a form almost more acceptable than praise."
Anthony Powell, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant
TT: Winding down
Judging by the Site Meter, most of you have more important things to do this weekend than read blogs. For those diehards who can't get enough, this is to inform you that I'm out of here very early tomorrow morning, and pretty much every minute between now and then is spoken for. I went to plays on Friday and Saturday, and I've got another one to see today. I'm writing my best-of-2003 "Second City" column for the Washington Post and an unrelated magazine piece. Oh, yes, I mustn't forget to pack.
All of which is to say that I don't think you'll be hearing from me again until I'm safely ensconced in Missouri some time Monday evening. Once I'm there, I'll send up a flare, and I plan to spend the week posting and responding to those items from the "About Last Night" mailbox that I've set aside for precisely that purpose. I don't know what OGIC is planning, but I'm sure it'll be as good, if not better.
See you later.