27 July 2008

Marseille Can You See?

Until this week, Marseille was the only major town in France I had never visited. The city enjoys a number of reputations, three of which probably account for my lack of hurry to get there.

First, Marseille is said to be pestilentially hot in summertime. Second, its charms are immortalized in three films by Marcel Pagnol, the first screenwriter admitted to the Académie Française. Marius, Fanny, and César depict Marseille’s Old Port in the late 1920s and ’30s as lively, humorous, and enviably comfortable even in times of travail. When you see the movies, you want to live there — not only in the town, but inside the movies themselves. Yet even if Pagnol’s portrait of Marseille was ever realistic, it’s pure fantasy now. The Nazis ploughed under a great deal of the Panier, the neighborhood around the Old Port, and the piers are lined now with pleasure boats. Though fishermen do sell their fresh-caught wares along the Quai des Belges every morning, their little boats have to fight their way there. Going to Marseille in search of Pagnol’s vision would be like going to Brooklyn in search of Ralph and Alice Kramden — I knew that.

Modern fishermen in the Vieux Port

The third reputation was perhaps the most daunting. After World War II, the Marseillais built a new port — that’s where most of the fishermen and stevedores went, along with smugglers of every known commodity, from jewels to drugs to humans. It’s probably the single most notorious locus of crime in the nation, and its influx of illegal immigration (primarily from Africa) and economic downturns have given many Marseillais a particularly unpleasant strain of politics. As my friend Joshua White and I prepared to leave this week, we heard and read countless warnings from well-meaning French people: Go there and expect to be mugged at knifepoint by rabid nationalists. Yet what we found turned out to be quite different from what we’d been led to expect.

Metropolitan Marseille covers a vast area, and yet we concentrated almost exclusively on the Vieux Port, hardly touching the three-day Métro passes we’d bought. Twenty-six centuries ago, a colony of Greeks, driven out of Turkey, landed at what was an excellent natural harbor, beautifully sheltered from the Mediterranean. They decided to stay, naming the new town Massalia. Almost immediately, their port was one of the busiest in the ancient world, an economic powerhouse whose wealth can be seen in the artifacts that turn up seemingly any time a modern Marseillais plants a shovel. One museum features row upon row of enormous terra cotta storage urns, pretty much where the Ancient Romans left them; archaeologists believe that the docks extend even further, with still more urns lying buried.

From the Jardin des Vestiges, one can admire
the Marseillais millennia.


This is the sort of thing that thrills me. The conductor Leonardo Vordoni once famously remarked to me that “Paris is a very new city,” and while his intent was ironic (I think), it’s true my musical friend labors under the somewhat warped perspective that comes from growing up in Italy, surrounded by crumbling antic marble on every hillside. I grew up in suburban Dallas, where I seldom saw any structure that predated the Korean War. When I stand at the intersection of the Boulevards Saint-Germain and Saint-Michel in Paris, I’m standing at the crossroads of the original Roman settlement, still four of the busiest corners in town, two thousand years later. It’s mind-blowing to me.

Thus I thoroughly enjoyed poking around the Vieux Port and finding everywhere traces of what it used to be. In the 1970s, when developers broke ground for a shopping mall (which is monstrously ugly), they uncovered another chunk of the harbor, including the remnants of a ship still moored at the dock. The shopping mall was redesigned to include a historical museum, and you can see all sorts of ancient booty there; step outside, and you’re in the Jardin des Vestiges, with its exposed ruins. The area was lousy with pottery factories — and I use that word “factories” advisedly — where scores of urns were turned out to store traded goods from near and far.

A whole lotte of work to do:
On the Quai des Belges, a fishmonger prepares a monkfish.


Marseille started out as a major industrial port, and it has remained one steadfastly; about its status as a tourist destination, the city is ambivalent at best. Its monuments are ancient but neglected, its museums numerous but indifferently curated. (I was disappointed to find that the Musée des Beaux-Arts, in the ludicrously ornate Palais de Longchamps, is closed for renovation.) Even the traditional Marseillais accent seems to have gone into hiding: I didn’t hear the rolling Rs and accentuated Es at all. Other of the city’s charms are available, but they have to be coaxed a bit.

One can, for example, take an excursion along the coastline, with its calanques, rocky fjords — but the boats are crowded and most fares are quite expensive. (I’ve seen the calanques of Corsica, so I didn’t feel cheated by missing their Marseillais counterparts.) If you’ve got a car, you can drive to l’Estaque, a nearby village where Cézanne and other Impressionists lived and painted; just looking out the window of the train, one sees a constant display of evocative landscapes. It’s lovely, and quite possibly mandatory, to sit in a café on the Vieux Port and to sip one’s pastis in late afternoon, yet one misses the sea: the Vieux Port is so sheltered that it’s ultimately somewhat claustrophobic.


A brief word on pastis: it’s a powerful alcohol made with anise, licorice, and sometimes other herbal flavorings. The mixture (and the alcohol content) is what defines it, and so I was pleased to learn at the Maison du Pastis that the words pastis and pastiche are related. It’s served in little glasses, with a pitcher of cool water: one pours the water into the glass, the liquor turns cloudy, and one sips. Any Provençal worth his salt can make a single dose of pastis last for hours, and striking the right balance of water and liquor is a process attended by almost ritualistic fervor.

Just a few of the 95 varieties at La Maison du Pastis:
The owner demurred when I asked
whether she could taste the difference.
(Photo courtesy of La Maison du Pastis.)


On one of my strolls, I glimpsed a little table of grubbily picturesque Marseillais types, like characters from the Pagnol films or figures in a Cézanne painting as they drank what I presume to have been their first pastis of the day, around noon. If I had Stuart Finkelstein’s knack for snapping candid photos without being detected, or Catherine Karnow’s gift for asking strangers to pose, I’d have taken a picture, and you could see for yourself. But I was still too afraid of Marseille’s violent reputation to make the attempt.

As it turned out, Marseille didn’t harm a whisker on our chinny-chin-chins. Though I’m sure there are areas that tourists would be well advised to avoid (around the new port, for example), we got nowhere near them. Generally, the city has taken steps in recent years to clean up bad neighborhoods and to make its streets safer; as for us, Joshua and I are both hardy urbanites, and with our practiced savvy, we had no trouble at all.

Café Society: Joshua White contemplates the incapacity of the French to brew a proper cup of tea.

We didn’t achieve the degustatory bliss that I’ve enjoyed on other trips to the south, notably in Nice with Mark Dennis, but Joshua and I sampled several regional specialties in better-than-average restaurants. Bouillabaisse was a necessity to us, since Marseille is famous for it, though we’re told it’s actually from Toulon; every door beckoned with promises of grilled, fresh-caught daurade and loup. I tried the panisse, a little chickpea pancake that gave its name to one of Pagnol’s most beloved characters (and to Alice Waters’ California restaurant), and brousse, a fresh goat’s milk cheese whose Corsican cousin, brocciu, is one of my favorites.

On any future trip, I hope to make it up to Notre Dame de la Garde, the church that watches over the city from a hilltop perch (the architecture isn’t great, but the view must be fantastic from up there), and to the Château d’If, the fortress where the Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned; it stands on a small island just south of the Vieux Port. And yeah, I’d like to see the calanques and some of the coastal villages, too. One of these days. But now at last I can say that I have crossed Marseille off my list, and I know France a bit better as a result.



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21 July 2008

Norman Conquests

At Gaillard, the French proved (yet again)
too clever for the silly English kniggets

As part of the ongoing celebration of my birthday, we took a road trip to Normandy this weekend. Though I think of Normandy as being coastal, northerly, and quite far from Beynes, the region occupies a good deal of the French map, and its southernmost bits are a short drive away, even when one’s vehicle is a sputtering Renault 4L.

We began with a picnic at the Château Gaillard, overlooking the winding Seine near the town of Les Andelys. The weather proved a bit chilly — and very windy — but it’s a fine thing to drink one’s cider in the shadow of a medieval fortress. Fans of The Lion in Winter will want to know that the château was built by Richard the Lion-hearted (Anthony Hopkins) shortly after he’d signed a treaty with the French king, Philip Augustus (Timothy Dalton), in which both agreed not to build any fortresses. Ooops. Richard died before the château was completed, so his brother John (Nigel Terry) was on duty when Philip besieged the place and conquered it.

Not appearing in this film, nor anywhere near Gaillard:
O’Toole as Henri II d’Angleterre, Hepburn as Aliénor d’Aquitaine


Several generations later, Louis XIV’s prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin, ordered the destruction of all the defensive châteaux, since these were proving too handy for French noblemen opposing the consolidation of power in the hands of the monarch. Gaillard, however, is almost laughably vulnerable, the trick being to use the back door. Perhaps that’s why Mazarin permitted the fortress to stand.

Price of admission to the keep is 3 Euros, and you can take a guided tour in French if you’re so inclined. (I did so three years ago.) For an extra Euro, you can buy a combination ticket that affords you access to the Nicolas Poussin museum in Les Andelys, outside which the great French painter was born. We decided to check out the place and were somewhat surprised to learn that the museum contains precisely one work by Poussin. One of his historical epics, Coriolanus Hears the Supplication of His Wife and His Mother depicts a scene known to students of Shakespeare and to those of Roman history, with a full display of Poussin’s muscular classicism and dramatic composition and gestures. Though it’s a very good painting, and there’s a very good Roman mosaic in an adjacent room, the rest of the collections look less like a museum than a thrift store, with bric-a-brac that the locals didn’t have any other use for. One might be disappointed if one had paid full admission — so you are warned.

Worth the trip, if not the admission: Poussin’s Coriolanus
Photograph from the mayor’s office of Les Andelys

As I say, this wasn’t my first trip through this part of the country, but on previous visits, my attempts to get into the Château de La Roche-Guyon failed miserably. I have lost count how many times I’ve arrived, only to find the place closing or closed. Now at last I have succeeded, and it’s quite a remarkable place, consisting of a medieval tower, and a manor house built on the foundations of the medieval keep and updated during the Renaissance and 18th century. The house is full of ghosts, including one scion of the 19th century, a notably handsome youth who watched in horror one night at a party, when his bride’s gown caught fire and she burned to death on the spot. He reacted by becoming a reactionary Catholic, eventually an archbishop, and among the first things he did was to burn all the “heretical” books in his ancestral library. (These likely included tomes belonging to François de la Rochefoucauld, known by legally mandated trademark as “the author of the celebrated Maxims,” in the 17th century.)

La Roche-Guyon: A house divided

Interesting as all the family psychodrama is, the architecture is the real source of fascination. The earliest known château was carved directly into the limestone face of the cliffs lining the Seine. According to Abbot Suger (who knew everything and who invented the cathedral), it was impossible to see the original château from its exterior, obscured by trees and shrubbery, though its interior, he wrote, was “an ample dwelling with a few wretched windows.” Few if any traces of that structure survive, but the tower is reached by a staircase that burrows ever upward. (Dug in 1190, that original staircase is in use again, and I climbed it.) The family burial chapel was likewise hollowed into the cliff, then lined with masonry. Under the Nazi occupation during World War II, Erwin Rommel dug storerooms into the base of the cliff, through the rear wall of the manor house. Modern neighbors of the château have carved their garden sheds and garages out of the limestone, too.

Stone-age gar-ages

Later generations remodeled and added onto the old château, and one gets the impression of something like a mosaic of French architecture, with bits of different epochs placed one next to another. Then there’s the garden, a vast plot that extends to the banks of the Seine.

Atop the tower, I met two older French couples, and we engaged in companionable banter about the steep climb until my accent betrayed me and I was forced to confess that I’m not French. We talked then about the election. All of them were excited about Barack Obama, and looking forward to his visit later this week. The rest of the American presidential campaign puzzled them. “Couldn’t the Republicans find anyone better than this McCain?” one of them asked, while another expressed regret that Hillary Clinton would not be the Democratic nominee. “It would have been historic to see a woman in charge of such an important country,” he said. I reminded him that the French had a similar chance, and squandered it, when Ségolène Royal ran for president last year. “Oh, yes,” he said, “but this is France!” Oddly, I think I know what he meant.

There are thousands of châteaux in France, and over the past several years I have visited scores of them. Bernard has come to despair of my inability to recall each of them in detail, to summon a mental picture whenever one is named, to remember what I wore when we visited. Now that I’ve got a blog, perhaps my memory will improve.




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18 July 2008

Andrew Weems

When we are young and in college, or fresh out of it, most of us are casting about, trying to discover what we ought to do with our lives. The presence among us of one who already knows, and whose assessment of his abilities and how they may be applied to his future welfare appears in every way to be reasonable and correct, is singular, and it provokes a singular response. We begin to stake some measure of our own happiness on his success, as if he were our proxy. We follow his progress with sometimes more attention than we accord to our own endeavors. We derive a kind of security: one thing, at least, seems certain and right in the world, as we continue to bumble and dream.

And that is why I believe that, if Andy Weems had not become an actor, it is entirely possible that a substantial percentage of his classmates at Brown University would have taken their own lives in despair. And probably we’d have taken his, too, while we were about it.

I reflect on the subject of Andy today, his birthday, as I look over an unsuspected trove of materials pertaining to his one-man show, Namaste Man, which details his experiences growing up in Nepal and in suburban Virginia. If I were a better friend to him (or to you, for that matter), I’d have written about Andy while you still had a chance to get to the Intiman Theater, in Seattle, to see the play. You will have to settle for retrospection.

Like many of my classmates, I flirted with theater, but to spend time with Andy was to be reminded constantly that I was kidding myself. Just listening to him speak, I had to admit that I had no vocal instrument and to confess that I never located my diaphragm. (I may have been born without one.) Meanwhile, even in his late teens, Andy’s supple baritone could project whispers and roars from one end of the Green to another. And he can sing, too.

He shape-shifted endlessly at Brown, as even a partial résumé will attest: a globular Falstaff and a gelatinous Benno Blimpie (roles for which, perversely, he lost weight); an aged, weary Prospero (likely the world’s finest, if not only, 19-year-old Magician of the Isle of Noises) and a vital, athletic Henry II in The Lion in Winter; a jabbering pygmy in Candide, a hulking farmboy in Buried Child, and a Malvolio who made you completely forget that the actor playing him was not in truth six-foot-three and exceptionally lean with a dagger-sharp nose. Seeing him in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, many years later, I knew in advance that his transformation into the eponymous beast would be flawlessly convincing, as indeed it was, though I daresay it came as a surprise to others in his audience.

Even on matters of language, he had me beat. One night after a performance by a beloved classmate of ours, Rosemary Smith, as Maria Callas in McNally’s Master Class, I sat in awe as the two of them broke down every syllable to analyze a speech from Shakespeare. Rosemary and Andy hadn’t merely read the play, they had studied it, taught it, and lived it. Now they discussed how best to communicate his language to others, and I had absolutely nothing to contribute to the conversation. What could I possibly say? “Me like Shakespeare, too. Him good”? No. I kept my mouth shut and tried to learn, not merely to marvel.

Andy is also a helluva writer, and Namaste Man, which I saw in a couple of workshops (one in a “theater” that closely resembled a broom closet), gorgeously combines anecdote, mystery and revelation, while providing him with a forum for what the Intiman estimated to be 40 different characters. (I was too engrossed to count.) These include both of his parents, and although Andy is a peerless mimic, I’ve often noted that in any medium one’s parents are most difficult to portray successfully: one knows them too well. I knew both of Andy’s parents, and it’s as if they, not their son, take the stage for those portions of his play.

I’m not obliged to describe Namaste Man for you, because Andy does so quite capably himself, in this clip that I found on YouTube:



But these are things that anyone who has been lucky enough to attend his performances can tell you. Mine is the greater privilege to know the guy personally, to have roomed and to have double-dated with him, to have attended other people’s plays with him, to have shared take-out Chinese and battered paperbacks with him, to have enjoyed his ecstatic play-by-play of Redskins games. You could float a navy on all the cups of coffee we’ve drunk together. Though I’m one day older than he by the calendar, he once calculated (over my strenuous objection) that because he was born in Seoul in the morning and I in San Antonio in the afternoon, he was already on this planet for a couple of hours when I made my first appearance. That accident of timing doesn’t account entirely for the fraternal feeling, but maybe it’s part of it. Maybe.

Certain aspects of any friendship don’t require publicity, though some day it may fall to me to invent a mythology around Andy, the way his ancestor, Parson Weems, did around George Washington — or the way that Andy invented a mythology around John Lennon, for my exclusive benefit, because I alone was gullible enough to believe him. (Nevertheless, Andy is a devout priest at the temple, and I learned much from him about the Beatles. To this day, we observe the Lennon anniversaries with due solemnity.) But for now, one truth will do.

Andy introduced me to dozens of plays. Some he acted in, revealing unexpected treasures — notably Calderón’s brilliant Life Is a Dream and Shakespeare’s mediocre Troilus and Cressida, which I’ll warrant I have now seen willingly more times than anyone else alive, because Andy keeps getting cast in one role or another. (And I’ll go again: I look forward to his Pandarus.) Others he talked about so much that I was compelled to discover them for myself. That’s how I came to appreciate Samuel Beckett and to derive, for the rest of my life, the paradoxical comfort that lies underneath so much of the playwright’s copyrighted bleakness. As I read Beckett, Andy and I were living in conditions that too-closely resembled those of a Beckett play; years later, I can’t contemplate my parents without recognizing the Beckett characters within them.

Thus Andy shared with me something more important than any single text or individual interpretation: his approach. Thanks to him, I understand that a play is a living thing, the theater a way of being, even if you are not an actor.

While my own career moves have not been entirely unpredicted, they have never seemed to be preordained, as Andy’s have. I really did dream of becoming an actor, too, for a while, but in retrospect I see that my dreams were more comparable to Andy’s own fantasies of quarterbacking for the Redskins. Andy has provided me with inescapable evidence that all the world’s a stage, and that whatever we wind up doing with our lives, we are merely players. And yet, as I say, the world seems righter when Andy is acting in it.




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16 July 2008

Class Notes

Beth Zalusky-Finkelstein ’83 with a Parisian waiter
(who may be a Johnson & Wales alumnus)
Photo by Stuart Finkelstein


William V. Madison ’83:
Greetings, fellow Brunonians! The Class of ’83 had a mini-25th Reunion here in beautiful Paris last weekend, when Beth Zalusky ’83 stopped off after a cycling tour of the Dordogne. Sporty, artistic Beth is still the funniest woman at Brown, even when she’s not on Thayer Street, and she introduced me to her husband, Stuart Finkelstein, who is not a Brunonian but a very worthwhile person nevertheless. There was much merriment, sightseeing and festivity. Also, Will Ladislaw ’83, Marge Gunderson ’83 and Adelaide Wesendonck-Ruckert ’84 will want to know that we talked about you ceaselessly behind your backs. (Just kidding!) Other Brunonians traveling through France will want to contact me — but too bad for you, because the weekend was so great that I have no choice but to move back to the U.S. immediately. It will never get better than this. I enclose a snapshot of my latest creation, five jars of homemade black-currant preserves! They look good enough to eat, don’t they? But frankly, it was such a pain in the neck to make them that they are now too precious to eat. I prefer just to sit and stare at them.


Jocasta Schonwald ’83, MD ’86:
Sorry I couldn’t make it to Camp Bruno for the big 25, but it’s been a busy year in our household! After discovering the cure for cancer in August, I received the Nobel Prize for Medicine. You could have knocked me over with a feather! The whole family — life partner Alice Waldschon ’82 and kids Dylan, Ryan, Nelson, and Willow — enjoyed a fun-filled trip from sunny Phoenix to Oslo in December. (Brrrrr!) Since then, I’ve heard from Jasper Gilcott ’65, Marlene Smithy-Orlovsky ’73 and Lisa Lisastein-Stein ’81, who all write to say I saved their lives with my cure. You’re welcome! Next up: the common cold! Would love to hear from classmates any time at all — even if you’re not sick!

Josh Lacrosse ’83:
Thoroughly enjoyed Reunion™ this year and getting together with so many Psi Psi Iota brothers. “Iota kill you guys!” Shared buttloads of happy memories of that crazy couch fire and that wild night around the pinball machine in the frat house. (Whatever happened to Muffy Partyr ’86, anyway?) Enjoyed the time so much that I whipped out the old checkbook and am now sole and exclusive owner and proprietor of Brown University™. Look forward to a few changes, starting in the fall: lap dancers in the lecture hall, anyone? I figured buying the place was the only way my kids (Jake, age 16 or so; Gwyneth, around 9, I think; and the other one) would ever get admitted — to say nothing of my girlfriends! When not acquiring new investment properties or accumulating obscene amounts of wealth, my current hobbies include yachting, divorce, and staring at my money. Not enough hours in the day! Would love to take a meeting with any classmates who couldn’t make it to Reunion™; have your people call my people.

Herman Dwiebelmann ’83:
I have recently completed a 17-year study of “Be-plus Verbs” in English and German and, upon its submission, I can be-gin looking forward to a doctorate in Comparative Western Philology be-stowed by Yale. This will be followed by my application for tenured teaching positions at academic institutions in states where I would never want to live, the search for related study topics that will permit me to publish instead of perish (since the field of “Be-plus Verbs” is already overcrowded and intellectually exhausted), the repetition of my findings in mind-numbing lectures to half-empty classrooms of resentful undergraduates, and the eventual paying-off of my student loans. I am currently living on ramen noodles and thin gruel in an apartment I share with 18 cats and an indeterminate number of coke-snorting Yalies half my age whose daddies buy them freaking Porsches but who do not pay the rent on time. I have no social life or personal interests outside my studies. I do not have time to enter into correspondence with former classmates, but you can speak to me if you order a Venti at Starbuck’s #347, New Haven, CT.

Sarah Arzner-Godard ’83:
Still living and working in Hollywood and loving it! My latest film, Rape and Pinball: The Buffy Portyr Story, opens in the fall. Boffo Buffy biopic creds Randall Quahog ’82 (screenplay), Nate Uomobuono ’84 (lens master), Angela Foley ’93 (sound), Toby Greaves ’02 (best boy), Tom Fender ’79 (score), Victoria Klein ’83 (PR), and Estelle Baxter-Partyr ’54 (consultant). And that’s not counting all the alums who work in the front offices at the studio! Who needs Reunion? I just show up for work!

Evangelía Duarte ’83:
Following Reunion ’03, I returned to the tiny Central American nation of El Mirador, where I continued to work with underprivileged children while actively engaging in armed revolutionary resistance to the U.S.-backed fascist regime that oppresses its people. Much though I enjoyed previous Reunions, I was unable to make it to Providence this year, since I am currently being held as a political prisoner by the junta. Would enjoy hearing from former classmates who send cash (preferably Euros, as the U.S. dollar has no value here), cigarettes, and porn with which I can bribe the guards in order to obtain enough food to survive. It may take a little while for me to respond, since I am shackled in solitary confinement most of the year, so ¡Gracias! in advance.

Hiram Eumenides ’83:
Having won the prestigious Manner Book Prize for Fiction for my sixth novel, She Drinks, I have exhausted my own personal history and am now seeking new material for my forthcoming thinly disguised Bildungsroman à clef. I would enjoy hearing from any former classmates; please contact me at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, California.

(Note: The words “Brown,” “Reunion,” “Providence,” and “University” are all registered trademarks of the Lacrosse Corporation, a Cayman Islands holding company and subsidiary of Lacrosse Industries.)


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Madison Airlines

Our Motto: The sky is not the limit.

Dear Valued Customer:

Our records indicate that you have flown with our airline one or more times during the past 37 years. Due to rising prices in fuel, as well as other factors affecting the economy in general and the airline industry in particular, we are now compelled to charge you the following additional fees for the trip(s) you took.

Safety Demonstration: $95
If you paid attention: $85
Oxygen mask: $250
If you used it: $1,250



One or more pieces checked luggage:
$50 per bag

One or more pieces carry-on luggage:
$25 per bag

Complimentary peanuts or pretzels:
$25 per bag

Cheery “Bye-bye” from crew:
$25 per Bye

Influenza virus you caught on board:
$500 per bug

Engrossing conversation with seatmate:
$5 per minute

Entertainment fee if she had pictures of her grandchildren:
$75 per photo

Entertainment fee if the pilot pointed out landmarks on left-hand side of the plane:
$750

Entertainment fee if you were seated on the right-hand side of the plane:
$685

Entertainment fee if you were seated in an emergency-exit row:
$750

Entertainment fee if you used an inflatable life-preserver or flotation device in the event of an emergency landing:
$750

Remember how we told you to exercise caution when opening overhead bins? Well, now we’re charging you an
Exercise fee:
$150

Time spent on tarmac awaiting departure:
$50 per minute

Time spent on tarmac awaiting arrival at gate:
$50 per minute

Pilot maintenance: $3,275

Takeoff fee:
$300

Landing fee:
$3,000

Additional fee if we used wheels (wear and tear):
$1,500

Additional fee if the plane had wings:
$30,000

Additional fee if it didn’t:
$300

Cabin-pressure:
$750 per unit of psi

In-flight magazine fee (Puzzle not filled in):
$45

In-flight magazine fee (Puzzle filled in):
$15

Cup fee for complimentary beverage of your choice:
$15

Napkin fee for complimentary beverage of your choice:
$10

Landfill fee for disposal of cup and napkin:
$150

Although these women retired in 1973, they (or we) must be paid.
Fee: $2,384.99
(Per attendant? Per flight? We haven’t decided yet.)



At present, we have chosen to waive additional fees for weight allowance (whereby you may be charged $5 per pound if you have ever met anyone weighing more than 150 pounds) and breathing ($75,000 if you’re still doing it; $25,000 if you are deceased). Market factors may require us to charge these fees, and many others, at a later time, without further warning to you or any liability on our part.

Your credit card will be billed automatically. It is our policy that you kindly remain seated with your seatbelt safely fastened and seat-backs and tray-tables in the upright and locked position, until we have come to a full and complete stop of thinking of ways to get more money out of you, and our flight accountants have cross-checked your remaining funds; at this time, our attorneys will give the sign that it is safe to get up and move around your home again.

There is no need for you to verify these charges, to calculate the total amount, or to take any action of any kind. However, if you would like to send us a couple of extra bucks, please do so. We appreciate your promptness, to avoid late fees.

We know you previously had a choice of carriers, and it was our pleasure to serve you on Madison Airlines. We hope you had an enjoyable stay(s) at your final destination(s), and we look forward to charging you again in the future.

Very truly yours,

William V. Madison
Chief Executive Officer
Madison Airlines

“Ranked #134 in Customer Satisfaction by J.D. Power & Associates, 1995”


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15 July 2008

Umbrage Is Not Free

One of the latest models of Umbrage Meters

This morning I received an unexpected knock at the door and found an angry man waiting for me. He introduced himself as Mr. Humbert Shade, representing Perugia Fosca & Associates, a little-known yet powerful collection agency, and he’d come to receive payment or else to begin repossessing all my belongings. Now, I’m scrupulous in my bill-paying, and I asked what, exactly, I owed. Mr. Shade handed me an itemized list. “For nearly eight years, you’ve been taking umbrage, and a lot of it,” he said, “but you’ve never paid.”

As I ran down the list, I realized that umbrage is in fact one of the world’s most expensive commodities, currently priced at $5,443,967.04 per ounce; the human organism, being remarkably umbrage-inefficient, burns up umbrage at a rate of as much as 16 tons per minute. This explains why most people take umbrage instead of paying for it — at least until the collection agencies catch up with them. Starting during the Florida recount after the 2000 Presidential Elections, I’ve been taking massive quantities of umbrage, with the result that I’m now deeply in debt.

Umbrage was first developed in Italy during the late-Middle Ages; it is derived from a mixture of raw sienna and yellow ocher (though not, as is widely assumed, burnt umber) which is slowly burned in an extremely hot oven or kiln. The resulting hard cakes, like charcoal briquettes, can be ignited by circumstance, then smoked at leisure, though most people take it in the convenient pill form that is, paradoxically, hard for others to swallow. Umbrage is frequently washed down with large quantities of liquor, and most often while sitting on a high horse. The effects of umbrage, very strong at first, generally weaken until it is passed out of the system. Currently, umbrage is one of the principal products manufactured in Umbria, the region east of Tuscany in central Italy. With revenue declining and other industry failing in Umbria, umbrage producers have begun to clamp down on those people, like me, who take it regularly.

Among the key ingredients in household umbrage

“Because this is an election year in your country,” Mr. Shade explained, “we may be able to avert a severe recession in Umbria — but only if we can collect. If Americans continue to consume umbrage at such high rates without paying, we’re probably looking at the loss of a million jobs and a full-fledged region-wide depression.”

Perugia Fosca & Associates has lobbied to install umbrage meters in every American home, a request that is currently being studied by the Department of Homeland Security. If successful, the plan would mean that each home receives a monthly umbrage bill, much like those associated with other household commodities, such as water, electricity, and gas — too late, however, to facilitate billing for widespread umbrage consumption during the current presidential campaign.

“We had a rough time with you Americans,” Shade said, “because your President Bush gives umbrage — for free. Even in Europe, he’s still getting away with it. He has made it incredibly difficult for our bookkeepers to stay on top of billing.”

Mr. Shade informed me that there’s an umbrage meter in my home here in France. Hidden in a shadowy part of my pantry, it escaped my notice before now. Apparently my consumption of umbrage overwhelmed the device, because the meter was broken, its readout panel burned-out and unreadable, its wiring short-circuited, its valves blocked, and its pressure-regulator exploded. A thin wisp of smoke was still rising from the top.

I seized on this evidence as an opportunity, and I asked Mr. Shade whether it was possible that I’d been billed in error. “Since the meter is broken, perhaps I’ve taken far less umbrage than your records indicate,” I said.

The French are Europe’s leading consumers of umbrage.
Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is shown here under its influence.


Shade was doubtful, but after a brief conversation we negotiated a payment schedule whereby, in the year 2124, I will have worked off the bulk of my debt. Shade then announced that he was ready to take his leave, for which he offered to pay with a piece of advice: “Next time — and I shouldn’t even be telling you this — try outrage. It burns faster than umbrage, but it’s renewable.” He told me that, in response to the New Yorker cover that depicts Barack and Michelle Obama as a Muslim and an armed revolutionary, respectively, many Americans were taking umbrage this week, whereas it would be cheaper to opt for outrage instead. “Just remember — if you do decide to go with outrage, you need a license.”

Exhausted by this encounter, I decided to take a nap, though I don’t know how I’ll ever manage to pay for it.


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14 July 2008

Fête Nationale

In the evening, there will be a fireworks display at the Tour Eiffel.

In an interview with me for Opera News last year, the stage director Laurent Pelly expressed his discomfort with “Co-co-ri-co” French nationalism. The word translates as “cock-a-doodle-doo,” and refers to the rooster that was the symbol of France in years gone by. Though I understood Pelly’s feeling — I squirm when confronted with American jingoism — my own response to French patriotism is not Pelly’s. He can afford to be ambivalent, because he was born here. I’m in the boat with other immigrants whose love for France exceeds all national limits: I stand proudly beside Napoleon Bonaparte, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Frédéric Chopin, Vaslav Nijinsky, Pablo Picasso, Josephine Baker, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Maria Callas, Julia Child, and Johnny Depp. We weren’t born here, we came here by choice; consequently, and each after his own fashion, we are more nuts about France than the French are.

And so I have spent this morning doing something that no French person I know would do: watching television coverage of the Bastille Day military parade down the Champs-Elysées. If I have moderated my adopted patriotism in any way, it is merely in that I didn’t brave the crowds (and the crowd control) to go down and watch the parade firsthand. Running around town this weekend with Beth Zalusky and her husband, I found that preparations for the parade were already a headache, days in advance, and the placement of the reviewing stand achieved the remarkable feat of making the Place de la Concorde even more impossible than ever to traverse. Watching from home afforded me superior views of the parade, as well as the chance to reflect calmly on the day and the nation, and what they mean to me.

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité en Défilé

Like anything in this country, the Bastille Day parade is rife with contradiction. The holiday was instituted in 1880, by leftists, in the smoldering ruin of the Second Empire, yet it is marked by a saber-rattling parade in which many of the marchers wear dress uniforms that date to the reign of Napoleon III. Under that emperor (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), French military adventures were numerous but not notably successful, and the last of them, a war with Prussia, resulted in France’s defeat, Napoleon III’s exile, the loss of Alsace and Lorraine, and the Germans’ first occupation of Paris. An equivalent paradox for Americans might be a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday that featured a parade of Confederate uniforms and a handgun exhibition.

Le jour de gloire est arrivé

It’s a strange thing to watch the French military on parade. They’re hardly a negligible power, yet they cannot be said to have a penchant for victory. They look wonderfully impressive, yet they lack the theatrical élan of the English or the crushing weight of the Soviets, in their parades. It may be significant that among those who wear Second Empire uniforms are the students of the École Militaire at Saint-Cyr (which I pass on the train between Beynes and Paris). While it’s untrue that French officer training consists of a single lesson (how to say “I surrender” in German), it may be that someone is trying to keep the young soldiers’ expectations low and therefore realistic.

Meanwhile, the French warriors pass in review before a president who recently insulted them (calling them “amateurs” after a mishap at Carcassonne) and who seeks to reform them by pruning their numbers. Sitting beside him on the reviewing stand are 40 heads of state and government, including the German chancellor and the leaders of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, a résumé incarnate of bloody conflicts past, present, and future. France’s role in those present and future conflicts will be peacekeeping at best, ineffectual at worst; its real military might will have nothing to do with the case.

The world’s first military air force, updated

This didn’t dampen the festivities in any visible way, and the parade ended at noon on the dot, with a precision landing in formation of parachutists directly in front of the reviewing stand. I’m not sure what it said about strength, but it was an excellent display of discipline. The heads of the armed forces then approached the president while a band played Lully’s “March for the Ceremony of the Turks,” that speaks nicely of cross-cultural exchanges within Europe (Lully, the official composer of Louis XIV, was born Italian) and between Europe and Islam; yet it also refers to Turkey, whose admission to the European Union Sarkozy opposes, and it’s derived from a farce by Molière, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. What does it all mean? Does it mean anything?

While the new, leftist Italian wife of the right-wing President of the French Republic circulated in her très chic suit of royal purple, I reflected on the spirit of France, and why it is that I, unlike any French person I have ever met, get choked up and even on occasion cry when I hear the “Marseillaise.”

It all boils down to this. It’s a busy night in Rick’s Café Américain, and a rowdy bunch of Nazis begin singing their noxious, beer-inflected anthem, “Wacht am Rhein.” Viktor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) turns to the orchestra and requests the “Marseillaise.” Rick (Bogart, of course) nods his approval, and Laszlo begins to sing, the band and all the customers joining in. The Nazis try to drown them out, but they can’t.

Even Yvonne (Madeleine LeBeau), the French beauty who’s been tempted to collaborate, begins to sing, remembering what she loves about her country and what she hates about the Nazis. Her eyes fill with tears — and so do mine.

The Nazi commander, Colonel Strasser (Conrad Veidt), tells Louis Renault, the police chief (Claude Rains), to put a stop to this musical uprising, and it’s then that Rains closes down the bar, uttering his immortal line that he is “shocked, shocked to find there is gambling going on here.”

It’s a pretty piece of propaganda, that scene, and utterly fictitious, but it speaks to a quality I’ve often seen and admired in the French: their pride in themselves. True, this pride sometimes manifests itself as arrogance, which is not their (nor anyone else’s) most attractive trait. But the French are entitled to a certain, quite high degree of pride. Their nation has been around a long time. Again and again, they’ve been masters of the known world and slaves of the Germans; they’ve been royalists, revolutionaries, reactionaries and republicans, but they have endured.

They invented chivalry, cathedrals, tennis, ballet, rational philosophy, analytic geometry, ballooning (and consequently, the first military air force), the Rights of Man, the separation of powers in government, the metric system, Braille, photography, pasteurization, the hypodermic needle, Impressionism, the combustion engine and the automobile, as well as its pneumatic tires, plus paid vacations, the Statue of Liberty, the motion picture, and most soap worth using. (They did not invent french fries or french toast, both of which are believed to be Belgian, and absolutely nobody takes credit for french dressing: all of this news is received with relief by most French people.)

And while they were at it, they created masterpieces of art and literature and the world’s most beautiful city; they cultivated the best food and wine; they discovered radium and decoded Egyptian hieroglyphics; and they have somewhat warily opened their doors to me.

That’s why I cry at the “Marseillaise,” it’s why I watch the Bastille Day parade, and it’s why I celebrate this day, every year, wherever I may be.

The beginning of a beautiful friendship.
(And not incidentally, a great excuse for a party)



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12 July 2008

Anne of the Hundred Years

Megan Follows as Anne Shirley

This year marks the centenary of one of the most remarkable characters in children’s literature, Anne Shirley, the heroine of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and its sequels. Though there was something of a boom in Anne-dom several years ago, when an extraordinary television miniseries was broadcast (it inspired me to read the book), I’m often struck by how little Anne is known, and what a pity that is. If you’re a girl, if you’ve got plans to become a woman, or to know one, you need to read Anne of Green Gables. Really, you should have done so already.

When we first meet Anne, she’s an orphan sent to work on a farm, on Prince Edward Island. The farm is owned by a middle-aged brother and sister, the no-nonsense Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, who were expecting a boy: instead, they find they’ve adopted a fanciful, strong-willed, intelligent, opinionated red-headed 11-year-old girl with a penchant for getting into “scrapes.” A romantic and a true Canadian, Anne is captivated by the natural beauty of the area, and gives grandiose names to every lake, hillock, and tree she sees, but she applies herself to her chores and her schoolwork, too, and a powerful love grows between her and the Cuthberts.

And the book is immensely enjoyable, even if you don’t have a high tolerance for “girl’s stories.”* Anne’s scrapes are often quite funny, the famous episode in which she accidentally dyes her hair green being representative, and her personality bursts off the page. As the reader watches her come alive, the excitement builds. She is — still — something fresh and original in fiction.

Indeed, the book is something of an extended character study. Written in an age when girls, in books as in life, were expected to be Victorian paragons, Anne of Green Gables presents a heroine who is independent, rebellious, and something of a proto-feminist. She’s also a chatterbox, for whom the concept of “seen but not heard” is anathema. She exults in language, and many of her speeches go on far too long, sometimes to the point of exasperation. But that’s the point. She forces the reader to admit that her eagerness to share her opinions, hardly a virtue among other heroines of her era, is recognizable, realistic, and entirely lovable — even admirable.

Of course she yearns to be a writer, and for a while you may be excused for thinking that Anne is about to live out a Canadian version of My Brilliant Career. But Anne has other ideas, and it doesn’t take very long to realize that she’ll wind up marrying a boy who teases her on her first day of school. Her relationship with the handsome Gilbert Blythe, the smartest boy in school and therefore her principal rival, is sometimes described as platonic friendship, yet they wind up having six kids: there must be something motivating them other than mutual respect.

In a late sequel, Anne surrenders her writing ambitions in order to rear their children, a plot development that disappoints many of her admirers. Yet it’s wholly in keeping with the character. Perhaps not since Dorothea Brooke, in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, has English-language fiction featured a heroine so intelligent, so eager to test her own resources, to make her own choices in life and to shoulder the responsibility for those choices, as Anne Shirley.

I didn’t read any of the sequels. I preferred to keep Anne where she was at the end of the first book. But I urge you to get to know her, not only through Montgomery’s novels but also through the television series. In the book, Anne’s scrapes sometimes get repetitive, and you may wish for a firmer editorial hand: the television series provides that, along with gorgeous scenery and incandescent performances from Megan Follows (Anne), Richard Farnsworth (Matthew), and above all the great Colleen Dewhurst (Marilla).

Spend a little time with Anne, and you’ll wind up with a greater appreciation for the girls in your life. You’ll also start dreaming of a vacation in Prince Edward Island. Gas prices be damned.

* Since boyhood, the only significant “girl’s story” I’ve been unable to stand is Little Women, a book that no boy should be made to suffer, ever. Indeed, Little Women is wholly unsuitable for boys and harmful to their psyches, because of the inhuman treatment the March sisters heap upon poor Laurie. Bad enough that they give him a girl’s name and constantly emasculate him, but the poor sap winds up marrying the odious Amy, far and away the worst sister. By contrast, Anne Shirley doesn’t abuse Gilbert Blythe. She doesn’t have to. She asserts her equality from the get-go, and they proceed from there. That’s an example that both boys and girls can profit from.


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11 July 2008

Past Lives Regression

Portrait of the Artist as a Previous Young Man.
I was a handsome devil, wasn’t I?

Since I spent much of this week wallowing in memories of my college years, this is perhaps the right moment to reveal that I’ve had practice in this sort of thing. Many years ago, when I was a student in high school, I underwent “past lives regression,” a procedure in which the subject is hypnotized and then speaks of all the people she or he used to be.

It was an interesting experience, although speaking with other people who have been hypnotized, I learned soon enough that I never actually “went under.” Given the Maginot Line of my psychological defenses at the age of 17, my resistance to hypnosis is perhaps unsurprising. (Surrender control? Are you mad? Who knows what might have come out!) But without ever believing in reincarnation, I retained an interest in past lives regression, and it’s clear that, even among those who do not retain consciousness during regression, “past lives” reveal more about present realities than about history. I have noted, for example, that roughly 89 percent of all those undergoing regression were either Leonardo da Vinci or Elizabeth I during the Renaissance, and an additional 94.8 percent of female subjects were Cleopatra, too. The former Marie Antoinettes of this world are legion. My own former identities were considerably more modest.

I was inspired by an account in The Dallas Morning News of a local psychotherapist, whose name I won’t cite now. I’ll call him Dr. Proust. Displaying the sort of bold initiative typical of high-school newspaper editors, I determined to do precisely what the Morning News reporter had done: call up the good doctor and undergo a regression.

Dr. Proust turned out to be a kind fellow who agreed at once to my proposal, and who didn’t charge me a cent. We gave him a cover story in the Pony Express, yet he can’t seriously have thought that publicity in a school paper was going to do him any material good. However, I often found in my early journalistic career that some grownups understood the value of helping kids to learn, and Dr. Proust struck me as one such adult, cooperating for all the best reasons. All the greater pity, then, that the experiment didn’t turn out better.

We conducted the more formal part of the interview first, with the Pony Express photographer (I believe it was Chris Burnley) snapping a few pictures. Then I stretched out on Dr. Proust’s sofa and closed my eyes, while in a soothing voice he repeatedly invited me to “fall into a deep, easy sleep.” (Long E sounds seem to be necessary to induce the trance state.) Throughout the ensuing conversation, I remained aware of my surroundings, including the hum of the air-conditioner: I’m told this is an excellent indicator that one is not actually unconscious.

In middle age, I still cut a dashing figure.

What followed then was a stream-of-full-consciousness series of responses to Dr. Proust’s questions. When two of my past identities began to speak in foreign languages, he became audibly excited: he may have thought he’d discovered a Bridey Murphy for the new era. After all, the chances of stumbling across a high-school senior who spoke both French and Italian in suburban Dallas were impossibly remote; Dr. Proust couldn’t know that I’d studied one and taught myself a little of the other through the constant playing of opera records. And he didn’t know these things — until I sent him a copy of the article. I never had the heart to speak to him again.

Each of my past lives contained more than a kernel of my present interests. In approximately the order in which they emerged, they were:

1. An Italian Renaissance sculptor
No, not anybody you ever heard of. My name was “Bellosandro,” and I did consult the Britannica to see whether any such person existed. Nope. At least, as I say, I had the modesty not to be Leonardo. I was, however, extremely good-looking (see my “portraits”), and I spoke Italian beautifully, as I always do when there is no one listening who knows anything about the language.

2. A valet in the court of Versailles
Again, a modest choice: I was not Louis XIV, I was just some guy who kept house for him. Naturally, I spoke French. Dr. Proust inquired about my death, and I recalled my spirit floating above a very handsome bed while my wife grieved over my lifeless body. Dr. Proust liked this a lot, too.

3. A shepherd in Ancient Greece
I died falling over a cliff as I tried to save a stray lamb. I’d already taken two bad tumbles into the Atlantic, in consecutive summers on opposite coasts (Nova Scotia, St-Jean-de-Luz), and I’d been hit by a car when I was 15: presumably these experiences informed my recollection of the nameless shepherd’s fatal accident. Asked by Dr. Proust whether I could speak any Greek, I demurred. “It is too long ago,” I said. Was this a premonition? A short time later, in my real life, I studied Ancient Greek in college, and failed miserably in the attempt.

4. An Egyptian who helped to build the Pyramids
We didn’t linger long over this character, probably because I know nothing about Ancient Egypt. I would have been unable to give myself an authentic Egyptian name, for example, and would have resorted to something like “Cheetochipandip.” (Sounds plausible, right?) My girlfriend at the time was Egypt-mad, however, and my subconscious was probably hoping to impress her.

5. A newspaper editor in Concord, Massachusetts, 1848
And 130 years later, I was a newspaper editor in Richardson, Texas! Quelle coïncidence! Why Concord? I’d visited the town, I’d read a little Emerson, and I was applying to Harvard in the fall. Dr. Proust asked what I thought of the fledgling State of Texas. “Not much,” I replied, already on my way to being a snobby Northeasterner.

6. A noble Englishman, late-18th century
At last I had money! And about time, too. I saw myself seated at a desk in a beautiful private library, and I was writing something, with the vague impression that it was a longish work of fiction. In my present life, I was already through the umpteenth draft of an exquisitely bad 600-page novel.

Still handsome: The silver fox.

This was enough regression for anybody, I should think, and Dr. Proust revived me, or thought he did. How much of the procedure was, in normal circumstances, quackery, I don’t know, but I’m confident that Dr. Proust sincerely believed that he’d hit the jackpot this time. You could practically see him writing up a lecture and delivering it to the next conference of his professional colleagues, or possibly 60 Minutes. Tellingly, however, he didn’t ask about my present life, an inquiry that might have caused his enthusiasm to wane considerably.

And yet in talking with other people who’ve undergone past lives regression, and who really were unconscious, I find that the process invariably reflects the present. One friend recalled being a minor rajah in Ancient India who was strangled to death by rivals, while one devoted courtier tried to rescue him. The friend is a woman, by the way, and today she can’t stand to wear scarves or anything around her neck, and the devoted courtier, she says, corresponds precisely to another close friend; for a while she lived with a man from Bombay who treated her less than gently. Go figure.

I’m all in favor of anything that makes our present lives more comprehensible, and if past lives regression can serve as a tool in that worthy effort, I make no objection. Ya gotta start somewhere. And thus I offer Dr. Proust my remerciements. I wonder who he is now.

Eventually, I lost my looks.

(All of the portraits here are of Bindo Altoviti, not an artist but a Florentine banker who patronized many of the best artists of his time, and thus a thoroughly wonderful man whom we should all strive to emulate. The first portrait is by Raphael, the second by Girolamo da Carpi, the third by Jacopino del Conte, and the bust is by Benvenuto Cellini.)



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10 July 2008

Sous le (gratte)ciel de Paris

One of the proposed designs that may change our view of Paris

As one rides the train from Beynes, the view of Paris begins in fleeting glimpses as one arrives at Sèvres. (Look! Over those trees — it’s the Eiffel Tower!) As one draws nearer, the city seems to open up, and on clear days one can see other monuments, too, particularly the church of Sacré Coeur on top of Montmartre, where I live. For anyone who loves Paris, or any kind of urban beauty, the train ride is a moving experience in more ways than one: it’s entirely comparable to the first sighting of the Emerald City. And it’s about to change.

Until now, the Parisian skyline hasn’t been marked by skyscrapers, and that’s by design. The exception, the Tour Montparnasse (which stands atop the terminal station for the train from Beynes), codified the rule. Completed in 1973, the 59-story building is too plain to be ugly, but in a city renowned for beauty, it sticks out, and it blocks the view of many other, more pleasing things. So pronounced was the public outcry against the Tour Montparnasse that, in 1975, the city passed a law prohibiting the construction of any building more than 7 stories tall, which was the traditional height for apartment buildings such as the one I live in; one finds skyscrapers, rather puny compared with those of other urban centers, only on the outskirts of Paris.

Another proposed design

This means that from almost any prominent spot in town, it’s possible to see the landmarks: the spire of Sainte-Chapelle, the gable of the Garnier opera house, the towers of Notre Dame, the domes of the Panthéon and the Hôtel des Invalides, the bubbles and pipes of the Pompidou Center. Though my apartment is turned the wrong direction to see from my window, if I stood on my roof I’d have an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower on one side and Sacré Coeur on the other, and many other monuments besides. On clear days, you can line up the Arch of the Carousel, at the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Arc de la Défense in a harmonious trajectory across miles and centuries; the twin façades of the Assemblée and the church of the Madeleine engage in a dialogue across the Seine and the Place de la Concorde.

Almost anywhere you turn, from almost anywhere you stand, you see the Tour Montparnasse. It’s often said that the best place to view the city is from the Montparnasse observation deck, because that’s the only place where you don’t see the Tour. Periodically there are calls for the Tour to be torn down, and a sometime advocate for its destruction is the city’s mayor, Socialist Bertrand Delanoë.

That’s why it’s ironic that Delanoë is now leading the vanguard to build new and taller structures. The city this week passed a new ordinance permitting buildings as tall as 50 meters, and Delanoë is advocating the construction of skyscrapers.

Delanoë: Up!

His reasoning is clear enough. There’s a serious shortage of affordable housing in Paris, forcing lower-income families into the suburban tenements that have become a hotbed of unrest; and even a Socialist can appreciate the economic stimulus that multiple, major building projects create. With little space available, the only direction to build is up. Moreover, as one of his aides remarked to the press, “Paris isn’t a museum, it’s a living city. It isn’t finished yet.”

But it’s unclear that Delanoë will succeed, because a reported 60 percent of voters oppose such construction, for a variety of reasons. The Greens, for example, oppose skyscrapers on environmental grounds: they’re harder to heat (or cool) and light, and they require elevators. French sociologists sneer at high-rise housing as “rabbit cages”: stacked, cramped, and dehumanizing. Others (like me) oppose skyscrapers on aesthetic grounds: the French word grandeur can mean “greatness” or “bigness,” yet they’re not the same thing, and Paris’ grandeur lies in its beauty, not its size.

Yet another proposed design

The city’s infrequent forays into height and modern architecture have not been successful. The Bastille opera house is pleasing from precisely one angle and plug-ugly from every other; it’s also constantly falling apart. The Mitterrand library looks best from a distance, not from the wasted heath of its plaza, and it’s only barely functional as a library. And the Tour Montparnasse isn’t exactly a prizewinner, except as the tallest office building in France and second-tallest in Europe.

As an expatriate, my affection for Paris is profound and profoundly conservative, as well. I didn’t come here because it looks like other cities, I came here because it looks like Paris. Even if I were a fan of modern architecture (I am at best a grudging admirer), I’d likely have objections to Delanoë’s plans for the city.

Yet I’m reminded of an earlier experiment in modern construction, one that outraged Parisians 125 years ago: the Eiffel Tower. People called it a monstrosity, an eyesore. It ruined the skyline, they said, and they yearned to see it torn down — as it was intended to be. Within a few generations, the Tower had become the universal symbol of Paris, the leading representative of the city’s grace, the focus of aspiration for people like me.

Gustave Eiffel designed his tower to demonstrate a new construction method that, with its steel girders and bolts, would permit buildings far taller than ever before. He applied this method to bridges, too, and to the Statue of Liberty. The first skyscraper, the Flatiron Building in New York, was built using his methods, as has been every high-rise since. Which is to say that, without Eiffel, New York wouldn’t look like New York, the other city I love.

So my plan now is to wait and see — and to enjoy the view for as long as I can.

As it appears today —
Photographed from atop the Tour Montparnasse
(Of all places)



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08 July 2008

Youth’s Fleeting Golden Hours

Miss Emily Wissemann Consents to the Honor of This Dance
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©

Circumstances and a couple of gently nagging e-mails remind me that I have not yet written here anything more than a couple of references to one of the most significant events of my year, the 25th reunion of the Class of 1983 at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. This is inexcusable, not because my words on the subject have any deathless value, but because the brilliant photog­ra­pher Catherine Karnow has granted me the exclusive right to run several of her pictures.

Failing to provide Cathy with a setting for her work would be like telling Michelangelo that, no thanks, you’d sooner use wallpaper in the Sistine Chapel.

I’ve shared with you something of my mood during Reunion Weekend, necessarily somewhat melancholy as I recalled friends whom I’ll never see again on Waterman Street or anywhere else (David Dornstein, Brian Greenbaum, too many others); as I wrote, I was returning to New York to attend the memorial service of another friend, Madeline Gilford. Yet the days were far from sad, as a few anecdotes will demonstrate. Moreover, I recall that, during Orientation Week, 1979, a distinguished professor I never saw again addressed the incoming freshmen and told us that “The unexamined education is not worth having.” Only by providing an account of Reunion Weekend will I truly examine it and learn anything from it.

Faunce House: Getting ready for the big event
Photo by WVM


I rode to Providence with Elise Goyette, whose zest for life makes her a boon companion at any time, and whose boundless compassion makes her precisely the right escort for a journey like this one. Moreover, she’s a whiz at organization: she set up the whole trip for me, sparing no detail, allowing me to focus on the poetry and philosophy of the occasion instead of the logistics and bookkeeping. In a word, she coddled me. And on top of everything, she has provided me with two of the best godchildren any man ever had. Though my godson was traveling abroad, my goddaughter would join us in Providence; I was looking forward to a dance with her at Campus Dance.

As Elise drove, we talked about our college years, and she impressed on me that my experience was exceedingly rare. Though I screwed up constantly, squandering opportunities and blundering even where I succeeded, I somehow developed a support system that continues to sustain me today. Together we ticked off a dozen names of close and enduring relationships that I formed while I was at Brown. Though I’m not in constant contact with every one of them, each passes what Merrill Gruver used to call “the burning-building test”: if this person were trapped in a burning building, would you risk your life to save them? Though I had a few nemeses, for the most part I was accepted, and as a result I will be much in demand in case of conflagration. The concept of “the Brown community,” much vaunted by the school’s admin­is­tra­tors and counselors, was no mere slogan for me. I arrived as an outsider, yet soon enough I belonged.

Ever true to Brown: Dean Bruce Donovan
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©


Some of the bonds I forged with my professors have proved equally enduring. (Prior to Reunion Weekend, however, I had kept up with only one of them, John R. Lucas, whose courses in technical theater I never took and thus whose student I never really was.) I’ve written about four of these teachers: Sears R. Jayne, Barbara Monahan, Bruce E. Donovan, and James O. Barnhill. Each provided me with tools to understand the world and myself. Not everybody in the Class of ’83 can say as much, Elise pointed out.

When we arrived in Providence, Elise and I teamed up with Cathy Karnow. To my surprise, these women, who have been so important to me, beginning at more or less the same moment in my history, barely knew each other, and there was immense pleasure in watching the two of them hit it off. We rediscovered Loui’s Restaurant and Thayer Street, we shmoozed with people we hadn’t seen in a quarter-century, we took pictures, we laughed and soul-searched. Balking at the exorbitant price for the Class of ’83 Alumni Dinner, we went to an Indian restaurant. In the mêlée of returning alums, in the sonic morass of “How are you? What have you been doing?” it seemed vital to preserve some moments of intimacy, and we had ours.

Elise and Cathy
Photo by WVM


Then it was off to the Campus Dance, where we found my goddaughter, effortlessly chic in the way that only 15-year-old girls can be. Together we caromed around the Green, and at last Emily consented to a dance with her godfather. (To represent her absent brother, I wore a shirt he had given me.)

This was the first of many incidents of uncommon patience on Emily’s part: never once did she roll her eyes while her elders gassed on, never once did she fidget, fume, scream, run away, or murder us, as any normal teenager might. Neither she nor I know the correct steps for the Big Band numbers being played, but it didn’t matter. We made a cute couple — so cute that people we didn’t know took our picture, and strangers smacked their teenage children and said, within our earshot, “Why don’t you dance with your father like that?”

If there are compensations to growing older (and I’m not sure that there are), this must be one of them: you can dance with your goddaughter.

Like something you would see: Campus Dance 2008
Photo by WVM


All evening, I heard that my freshman roommate was somewhere about, though I never tracked him down. According to rumor, he had hired a limousine to circle the campus, so that whenever he reached his hand through the fence, the driver might hand him a drink. Not for him the long lines for drink tickets and the long waits at the bar! I recount this rumor not because I believe it to be true on its face, but because it gives you an indication of the kinds of things people say about him, and that in turn says a little about his true character. Already as a freshman he had a Fitzgeraldian approach to life, an epic grandeur that nobody else possessed, and least of all his roommate. Paul was handsome, sophisticated, whip-smart, not a little dissolute, and a full year older than I. Between Deerfield and Brown, he’d spent a year in England, most often in a morning coat. We were monstrously ill-matched, and yet I liked him. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see him.

The familiar faces I did see, that night and the next day, were sometimes overwhelming. Reunited with Jennifer Moses after many years, I nearly burst out crying. Diana Revkin’s husband generously shared her exquisite company with me, though he knows we used to date. Beth Zalusky, the funniest woman at Brown, was perfectly serious when she told me she was coming to Paris: I’ll see her this weekend. Cary Twichell and Emily Bower were so uncannily beautiful, and as always possessed of such serene grace and wisdom, that I’m not fully persuaded I didn’t dream them. When it came time to dance with them, I became the clumsiest, least imaginative dancer in America. Better luck next time. Sue Klawans, whom I hadn’t expected to see (she was Class of ’84), turned up, completely unchanged, as if she’d just stepped out of the Film Society office. Perhaps there is no need to change, when you get it right the first time.

Some of the familiar faces I wanted to see were not in Providence. I arranged for dinner with Mark Dennis and Beth Chapman in New York (a great success, as always) and for lunch in New Haven with Alan Organschi (fell through). Steve Biel and Melia Bensussen contrived to get me to Boston for a day. The absence of two others was so keenly felt that I had to telephone them: the reunion was incomplete without Merrill Gruver and Andy Weems.

Elise and Emily flank Jim Barnhill
Photo by WVM


At a theater department reception, I encountered John Lucas and Don Wilmeth, merrily comparing medications like alte kakkes and bickering with well-practiced ease. Years ago, they were among the most forbidding people I knew, yet now they’ve become rather sweet. Jim Barnhill was there, and as I observed in an update on my earlier blog entry, he turned out to be sharp, fully up-to-date on the activities of everyone I know, and far from the forgetful character I remembered.

All weekend, I heard that Bruce Donovan was looking for me: he’d read my blog entry on him, and he wanted to see me. I didn’t know how to contact him, but such obstacles are trifles for Cathy. Naturally, she found him, then called me in Boston and handed the phone to Dean Bruce. I nearly fell over backward. In less than three minutes, he made four classical allusions, spoke profoundly about life, and hectored me to vote for Obama.

I’d been anxious, in the days leading up to the Reunion, because, let’s face it, a lot of my classmates are painfully successful, some of them in fields where I’d like to excel: Rick Moody, Jeffrey Eugenides, Todd Haynes, to name three. Another three are writers for some of television’s biggest hits, and they spoke at not one but two panel discussions during the weekend: Jonathan Groff (How I Met Your Mother), Ian Maxtone-Graham (The Simp­sons), and Kit Boss (King of the Hill). And mean­while, I’m unemployed, unpublished, and struggling. I was prepared to brandish my French residency like a shield, and although folks did seem pleased to know, and they did seem to consider it an achievement, I had no need to be defensive. Nobody high-hatted me. Indeed, I felt less snobbishness now among my classmates than I felt 25 years ago. Are we growing up?

Melia, photographed by some doofus she dated in college

I spent most of my Sunday in Boston with Melia and her family, terrific people in the aggregate — and what’s more, I realized afterward that each of them had reached out to me individually. In little Ilana’s case, this consisted of locking me in her room and insisting that I read her a book — not a story, but a 300-page book — while she shouted, “You’re mine! You’re mine!” In husband Chuck’s case, this consisted of going for a walk and talking quietly about Guy Stuff. And in young Jeremy’s case, this consisted of reciting Marx Brothers routines together. Out of all my friends’ children, Jeremy is the only one who’s “inherited” my love of the Marxes, and as a result ours is a special relationship. Shortly before it came time for me to leave, Jeremy found me in the dining room. He sort of butted against me, and only after his arms slapped hurriedly against my sides and he backed abruptly away did I realize he’d just hugged me, the way 12-year-old boys hug.

Melia and I went next to Steve Biel’s house, where he was throwing a Brown Reunion of his own, a barbecue that in many ways resembled the kinds of parties he used to throw when we were at school, with many of the same faces, and my college girlfriend at my side. We talked into the night as if we were still undergraduates, and I caught the last train back to Providence, and climbed College Hill to my dorm room in West Quad. The next morning, I returned to New York, and a more-present past.

I am a camera.
Cathy Karnow takes better pictures, though.

©Catherine Karnow

So what did I learn from these encounters? Perhaps not lessons but reminders of lessons: after all, it’s been clear to me for some time that my education at Brown was not merely intellectual or cultural but also social and sentimental. The books and ideas I found there are still with me, and so are a great many of the people. Some of the friends are like books that I read and then place on a shelf, then return to years later and find every bit as valuable and enriching as before, with new insights waiting to be gleaned among the familiar. Others of my old friends are like whole libraries to me, from whose shelves I have yet to stray, and at any moment I may find among them the stories I need.

Yet perhaps I’m struck most profoundly by what Elise said at the beginning of the weekend: other people do not have this experience of college. If I thrived at Brown, if I have carried its treasures forward to the rest of my life, I like to think that this is a function not of any quality of my own but of the eternal and virtuous brilliance of the men and women I met there. What extraordinary people they were and are! It’s strange to recall that I applied to any other school, so right was Brown for me, so much did it shape the person I am now. Though I seldom return to Brown itself, the Brown Community is never far from me.

Bill and Cathy

UPDATE: Merrill Gruver informs me that all three of her children are Marx Brothers fans. This raises the distinct possibility that, at my funeral, an entire chorus of my friends’ children may sing “Hello, I Must Be Going.”


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