30 November 2008

Basil & Rosemary & Stanley & Annette

Annette Karnow, in her garden, a few years ago.
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with permission


My week’s principal cooking adventure has been my first authentic pot au feu, a fancy name for boiled beef with vegetables. Previous efforts were inauthentic primarily because they used no beef. I’ve had to come up with other names for these dishes: autre au feu, for example, or one pot too few.

Meanwhile, my preferred primeur (vegetable vendor) in the town market has been hawking not only the potatoes for which our department, the Yvelines, is famous, but also a seasonal array of roots and tubers I can’t resist: betteraves (beetroot), navets (turnips), panais (parsnips), and topinambours. These last are called “Jerusalem artichokes” in English, though they’re related to sunflowers, and they’re native to North America, though I’ve never seen them there. In Beynes, I don’t have much competition from my neighbors for these delicacies, which they call légumes oubliés (forgotten vegetables). During the Occupation, the Germans seized all the greener and tastier vegetables for themselves, leaving only these scraggly old roots for the citizenry. Ever since Liberation, most French people won’t touch them anymore — don’t even talk to them about rutabaga.

In sum, my career as a serious foodie continues apace, despite its inauspicious beginnings. Both in the kitchen and at the table, I’ve had the benefit of a few good teachers; two of the best of these have been Annette and Stanley Karnow. As a journalist, Stanley was assigned to Paris and to Hong Kong, and lived there, and places beyond and in between; the Karnows have traveled the world over, eaten very well along the way, and shared with others the wisdom of their palates.

Stanley Karnow, crossing his words
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with permission


One of my happiest memories is a trip to New York’s Chinatown with Stanley, his daughter Catherine, and a gang of her friends. Arriving in the restaurant, Stanley tossed the menu aside and began an animated conversation with the headwaiter — in Chinese. I could not have been more astonished if he’d begun speaking fluent turtle or pony. Suddenly, dishes I’d never seen began to appear before us. Not a plate of sweet-and-sour anything. Though everything was delicious, I remember only the whole sea bass, an exotic sight indeed to one whose previous acquaintance with fish was almost exclusively limited to canned tuna and frozen breaded fish sticks. This was a kind of epiphany: the fish that one eats is actually fish-shaped. Really, the thought never occurred to me before.

(Naturally, I was terrified and didn’t touch the bass at all. It was another ten years before I learned to bone a fish, and I’m still not terribly good at it.)

Cathy’s amah, the redoubtable Newying, now lives in New York, and she also has led small squadrons of our friends into Chinatown, ordering for us in Chinese, and consistently obtaining food that’s so superior as to be unrecognizable. But she has a leg up there: she’s from Wenchow. She has proven to my satisfaction the old charge that restaurants, be they Chinese or French or other, seldom serve the best food to the customers, saving it instead for insiders.

It’s unlikely that I’ll ever replicate Stanley’s or Newying’s triumphs in Chinatown, since I would need to know what I was eating in order to ask for it again. I know how to say only two things in Chinese: the words for “American,” which everybody can see without my confessing it, and “Demon-Face,” which Newying doesn’t understand when I say it and which, if indeed it’s any kind of dish, would most likely be nasty to eat. But I learned from them the value of ordering off the menu, or at least of trusting the management. “What do you recommend today?” is an awfully good question.

Cathy and Newying
Photograph courtesy of Catherine Karnow


(From my parents, I learned the related value of getting to know the restaurant owners and staff personally. Back in Dallas, Mrs. Ojeda used to send over random treats — a plate of nachos, a bowl of queso — much as Annick Le Douaron at La Mirabelle today gives us a round of digestifs on the house, or the lamented Triantaphilos Triantaphilou used to bring two bottles of Naoussa for every one we ordered at Uncle Nick’s, plus ouzo at the end of the meal. Yes, there’s a lot to be said for being a regular customer, especially when one wants to leave pie-eyed.)

But what of the kitchen, and what of Annette Karnow?

Years ago, I visited Cathy at her parents’ home in Maryland. Cathy already had enlightened me on several finer points of international cuisine, such as the fact that Couscous is not merely the name of a character in Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World, and that it is possible to make salad dressing instead of purchasing it. Now she and her mother bustled about the kitchen on a long summer evening. And I had nothing to contribute. I had no idea what they were doing, what they were making, what they were talking about.

To cover my embarrassment, I flitted around the kitchen and started doing Julia Child imitations: “a rich, buttery bouillabaisse” and “bon appétit.” These met with Annette’s approval. But I tripped up when Annette mentioned Basil and Rosemary.

Naturally, I thought she was talking about a couple she knew. Perhaps they were joining us for dinner.

Even before I could cook, my imitation of Julia Child was flawless.
Here, I am shown in the Karnows’ kitchen, in 1985.


Of course, Annette was really talking about herbs. I was ignorant of these, except for oregano, which came sprinkling from a jar, and parsley, which was leafy, though wilted, and found only in restaurants.

Annette instantly grasped my difficulty — then my hand. She took me into the garden, where a plot was devoted to kitchen herbs. And in the soft light of the setting sun, she instructed me, pointing out the different herbs, giving me bits to smell and to taste, suggesting some of the dishes in which they might be used.

At one point, she cupped a chive blossom in her hands, bringing it to me to sniff. I will always remember her that way: smiling, sharing, against the purpling sky, beautiful. The photo posted here at the top of the page will give you some idea. It became my ambition to have one day an herb garden of my own. (It’s still just an ambition: whatever requirements of soil and light an herb patch may make, the garden in Beynes doesn’t meet them.) And in the interim, as I began to cook, I began to use herbs. I never see fresh chives without thinking of Annette.

Though basil and rosemary and I are pretty much inseparable nowadays, I don’t see enough of Stanley and Annette. Next time — I may muster the courage to cook for them.

Stanley & Annette: The Happy Couple
Photograph by Catherine Karnow© of someone else’s photograph
Used with permission

POT AU FEU
1 kg beef, tied with string*
4 good-sized turnips
4 medium potatoes (Yukon Gold)
6 medium carrots
1 medium leek
2 medium onions or more, according to taste
1 clove
1 or 2 bay leaves
Chopped rosemary, thyme, to taste
Salt

Peel and cut up all the root vegetables into chunks. Wash the leeks thoroughly, then chop them up, too, in slices about an inch long. Throw all of this into the pot. Throw the beef in. Mix them up. Pour in water, but not to cover. Throw in the clove and a generous handful of salt. Stir a bit. If you’re using a pressure-cooker, put the lid on and heat for about two hours. If you’ve got a plain old stewpot, you will need more time; you’ll know it’s ready when the vegetables are very, very soft and the beef is extraordinarily tender, and the whole house smells good.
Remove the beef, cut into serving portions. Place each portion in a soup plate, then ladle vegetables and broth over and around the beef. Let guests salt according to their tastes. (The French use gros sel, and a lot of it.)

Serves 8 French people, or 4 Americans.

Variations: Substitute chicken for beef, and you’ve got poule au pot, another classic dish. Omit the meat altogether, and you’ve got soup. Either variation will take much less time than the beef to cook.

Optional: If you’ve got other “forgotten vegetables,” you can use them, while using fewer of the vegetables indicated, to keep your proportions balanced. Parsnips would be very nice in this dish. Beets would be a mistake, since they’d discolor the broth.

*I don’t know what cut to use — I’ll find out. Ingeniously, I bought the cut marked “pot au feu” at the grocery, so it’s only now that I need to know.


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29 November 2008

Qual’ Coltello! Cutting Back in Opera World

Pretty, isn’t it? But did you notice the seats are empty?

The continuing economic crisis is being felt in the opera house. Washington National Opera recently cancelled its planned Ring Cycle, while the Metropolitan Opera Company announced that it would not go forward with a scheduled revival of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, a production that is very big (and therefore very expensive) of a work that is very modern (and therefore a tough sell to New York audiences, who run from anything newer than Turandot). To replace Ghosts, the Met is presenting Franco Zeffirelli’s La Traviata, a work formerly by Giuseppe Verdi that requires only three principal singers, a familiar score, and lots of furniture for the audience to applaud.

These are just a few of the cutbacks and cancellations occasioned by the troubled economy. American opera companies especially are in jeopardy, since they rely so heavily on contributions from a public that is no longer employed by major financial institutions; but even European companies, blessed with government subsidies, are feeling the pinch. For the benefit of my opera-loving readers, I provide a brief rundown of the companies and their responses to hard times.

The Metropolitan Opera Company
Ghosts will not be the only victim at the Met. A total of 27 new productions must be scrapped; all of them will be replaced with Franco Zeffirelli’s La Bohème, starring Renée Fleming, Natalie Dessay, and Justin Timberlake (debut).

The New York City Opera
Currently homeless (while Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater is remodeled) and cash-strapped, NYCO was in hot water even before the crisis cranked up. But much as it’s done in the past, Manhattan’s scrappy, populist company has devised truly innovative solutions. Concert performances in alternate venues around the city are planned, in conjunction with a special “Can You Find Us?” contest. The “Adopt a Singer” program gives audiences the chance to bid for the legal adoption of promising young American artists. Perhaps most exciting is the “NYCO Lottery,” the winner of which will receive all rights to Lauren Flanigan and the directorship of the company.

Chicago Lyric Opera
Having enjoyed success in recent seasons with Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Gilbert & Sullivan, general director William Mason announced plans to present the national touring companies of Spring Awakening, Spamalot, and Gypsy this season. Next fall, Chicago favorite Catherine Malfitano returns for a role debut, in Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly!.

You’re lookin’ swell!

San Francisco Opera
General director David Gockley has announced exciting new plans to sit in the dark with his head in his hands, staring forlornly into space, while moaning softly. Gockley further announced that, if composer Jake Heggie is willing to play piano in the background, they may be able to get away with calling this a new opera.

Houston Grand Opera
More repertory changes are expected at Texas’ largest company, beginning with a five-year cycle of the operas of the ever-popular Michael Tippett; the world premiere of Huw-Dafydd Cromlech’s Llewellyn ap Gruffydd; and an innovative outreach project, “The All-Star Lone-Star Eisteddfod,” a city-wide festival in which various community organizations join forces to enact scenes from The Mabinogion. Planned productions of Madama Butterfly, The Marriage of Figaro, Tosca, and Don Pasquale have been abandoned, being “irrelevant to Houstonians,” according to a press release. Though most roles will be taken by members of the company’s acclaimed Studio Artists program, look for the long-awaited American debut of Dame Angharad Gwalchmai-Cunddelw, in 2010.

English National Opera
Remaining at least half-faithful to the company’s mandate to present opera in English, ENO has announced a season of works by Andrew Lloyd Webber, beginning with Starlight Express, which will mark the return of company favorite Jane Eaglen. Each performance will begin with a special “Strip-a-Thon”: the baritone with the most pounds tucked into his G-string will be awarded the role of Don Giovanni, one of these years.

Deutsche Oper Berlin
With typical German efficiency, this venerable company will dispense with music altogether. Beginning in May 2009, cutting-edge stage directors will be engaged each evening to stand downstage center and hurl insults and garbage at spectators.

Bavarian State Opera
Elsewhere in Germany, Intendants look to the past for solutions. Munich’s company will reinstate the monarchy next season, and is currently engaged in a search for any gay guy named Ludwig who’ll pay the bills.

Los Angeles Opera
Despite hard times, general director Plácido Domingo continues to reach out to Hollywood’s moviemaking community. An ambitious 2009–10 season promises nothing but movies about opera, while a summer-long “Festival of the Smaller Screen” features television episodes about opera, and the entirety of that Nathan Lane sitcom where he played a retired tenor. Josh Groban hosts. Valet parking and validation on request.

New Orleans Opera
First Katrina, now this. Seriously, what did they do to deserve this?

Utah Opera, Salt Lake City
Praying even harder than usual.

Opéra National de Paris
It’s always about money to you Americans, isn’t it? Liberal pigs!


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27 November 2008

Le Premier Thanksgiving

At first, I was disinclined to believe an op-ed article in The New York Times this week. The writer, Kenneth C. Davis, claims that, long before Jamestown and Plymouth, the French settled in what is now the United States. A band of Hugenots founded Fort Caroline, near present-day Jacksonville, Florida, in 1564, Prof. Davis says; there they promptly celebrated the real first Thanksgiving. The French thrived in their little fort, until the Spanish massacred them a year later. Though Prof. Davis made all his data seem plausible, there remained a significant obstacle to my acceptance of his claim as fact: namely, that no French person ever lorded it over me.

Yet upon further research and study, I am driven to the inescapable conclusion that Prof. Davis is right, and that my friends the French have squandered innumerable opportunities to remind me of their superiority. This must not endure, and to help them in future conversations, I lay out now the fruits of my scholarship. For Fort Caroline was truly a wondrous place.

Upon landing, the French immediately set to work, building a barricade and cottages, and laying out many narrow, winding streets. These were quickly choked with traffic jams of horses and small donkey-carts known for their exceptionally high speeds, though they never went anywhere; there was no parking available. Ingeniously, the Caroliniens attached live geese to their carts, in order to honk at other drivers.

Having completed these initial tasks, the Caroliniens immediately went on strike, and no further construction work was done for the remainder of the colony’s existence. Though the drinking of coffee in the 16th century was still primarily limited to the Ottoman Empire and had yet to permeate French culture, the Caroliniens were ready to take up the habit; they spent many hours at small tables each day sipping cups of hot mud while looking off into space and scowling. Production levels for criticism, the colony’s principal export, quickly rose to rival those of major urban centers in the motherland, such as Rouen and Bordeaux, though still falling far behind Paris.

Then as now, the French charged reasonable admission fees to those who wished to visit their monuments.

The lack of Anglo-Saxons in the surrounding area was at first a source of consternation for the Caroliniens, since there was no one to feel contempt toward. The local Timucuan natives might have proved a convenient target, but they showed distressingly civilized tendencies already, such as topless bathing and the eager consumption of offal and hummingbirds (which are not ortolans but close enough). The unrequited need to sneer was almost overwhelming, though the Caroliniens’ prayers seemed to be answered, when a rosy-cheeked, blond sailor was shipwrecked near the Fort. However, he turned out to be German. The Caroliniens promptly surrendered to him and went about their business.

Quickly, the Caroliniens adapted their traditional cuisine to the foods at hand. Documents survive with detailed recipes for alligator bordelaise, daube d’alligator, pâté d’alligator en croûte, and rôti de manatee en sauce moûtarde avec ses échalotes sur un lit de palmetto sauté. Attempts to perfect the omelette aux oeufs d’alligator proved unsuccessful, however, when the eggs kept hatching; in such cases, the foods at hand ate hand. French-fried mosquitoes proved quite popular, though baguettes made with palmetto flour appear to have been a taste acquired only under duress.

For entertainment, the Caroliniens turned to traditional French sports, such as pétanque and giving wrong directions to tourists. Although cinema would not be invented for another 330 years, the colonists borrowed a sail from their ship, the Dédaigneux, against which they performed shadow plays in the evenings; following such a performance, it was customary for each member of the audience to write a 50-page monograph on what he’d seen. The ongoing labor unrest, with its concomitant rallies and protest demonstrations, provided further diversion.

It all came to an end when Phillip II ordered the Spanish commander, Admiral Pedro Menéndez, to attack the Fort, in August 1565. The Caroliniens considered this highly inconvenient, since they were just about to leave for a month’s vacation. Had Menéndez arrived only a few days later, he would have found the Fort completely deserted.

Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny had the brilliant idea of founding Fort Caroline, but of course he never set foot there. How can you even suggest such a thing?


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25 November 2008

On a Possible Explanation for Recent Historical Events, Namely the 2004 Election

Is our elected officials learned?

We’ve had yet another of those surveys that are so dispiriting, they make one wonder why we let our fellow Americans vote — for that matter, I wonder why we let them drive. I’ll let the press release of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute spell it out:
Washington, D.C., November 20, 2008 — Are most people, including college graduates, civically literate? Do elected officials know even less than most citizens about civic topics such as history, government, and economics? The answer is yes on both counts according to a new study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). More than 2,500 randomly selected Americans took ISI’s basic 33-question test on civic literacy and more than 1,700 people failed, with the average score 49 percent, or an “F.” Elected officials scored even lower than the general public with an average score of 44 percent and only 0.8 percent (or 210 of all surveyed earned an “A.” [Emphasis theirs.] Even more startling is the fact that over twice as many people know Paula Abdul was a judge on American Idol than know that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
The survey, like so many of its predecessors, is all the more alarming when you remember that the questions weren’t “Quick, off the top of your head — who has the power to declare war?” They were multiple choice. That’s right, the answer is staring the respondent in the face.

Nevertheless, “Less than half of all Americans can name all three branches of government,” the ISI asserts. (Seriously, we let these people drive?) And college education is shown to be no advantage: the press release reveals that “The average score among those who ended their formal education with a bachelor’s degree is 57 percent or an ‘F,’ which is only 13 percentage points higher than the average score of 44 percent earned by those who hold high school diplomas.”

Among the other bullet points:

  • “30 percent of elected officials do not know that ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence; and 20 percent falsely believed that the Electoral College ‘was established to supervise the first presidential debates.’

  • “Almost 40 percent of all respondents falsely believe the president has the power to declare war.

  • “40 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree do not know business profit equals revenue minus expenses.

  • “Only 54 percent with a bachelor’s degree correctly define free enterprise as a system in which individuals create, exchange and control goods and resources.

  • “20.7 percent of Americans falsely believe that the Federal Reserve can increase or decrease government spending.”

  • What the ISI doesn’t reveal is that, of all the participants in the survey, only one incorrectly responded as if it were an essay test, ignoring the multiple choices and providing complete answers of his own. I have obtained a copy of his responses, and although his identity remains unknown to me, I am told that he is male and an elected official, residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC. Where questions and answers are not provided, the respondent simply skipped them.

    1) Which of the following are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence?
    Aliens have no rights, especially the illegal ones. Only through vigilants can we protect our independance.

    2) In 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a series of government programs that became known as:
    Socialism.

    3) What are the three branches of government?
    Dick Cheney, David Addington, General Petraeus, and Karl Rove.

    4) What was the main issue in the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858?
    Who was a better decider and a stronger leader who would be tough with our enemies

    5) The United States Electoral College:
    Has no fraternities or sororities and a cheerleading squad full of dorks.

    6) The Bill of Rights explicitly prohibits:
    Higher taxes.

    14) The Puritans:
    Would make a great name for a baseball team.

    23) In October 1962 the United States and the Soviet union came close to war over the issue of Soviet:
    BORING

    25) Free enterprise or capitalism exists insofar as:
    A continued strong military presence permits that country to remain free and democratic.

    26) Business profit is:
    Not importent when your daddy’s friends can always find you another job.

    27) Free markets typically secure more economic prosperity than government’s centralized planning because:
    They are free.

    29) A flood-control levee (or National Defense) is considered a public good because:
    Its doing a heck of a job.

    30) Which of the following fiscal policy combinations would a government most likely follow to stimulate economic activity when the economy is in a severe recession?
    Its not my problem any more.

    31) International trade and specialization most often lead to which of the following?
    War

    33) If taxes equal government spending, then:
    I was specifically told there would be no math on this test.
    *
    Seriously, the survey struck me as scarily easy: I aced it. What’s your score? Herewith, I’m appending the full text of the ISI questionnaire — but not the answers.

    1) Which of the following are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence?
    A. life, liberty, and property
    B. honor, liberty, and peace
    C. liberty, health, and community
    D. life, respect, and equal protection
    E. life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

    2) In 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a series of government programs that became known as:
    A. the Great Society
    B. the Square Deal
    C. the New Deal
    D. the New Frontier
    E. supply-side economics

    3) What are the three branches of government?
    A. executive, legislative, judicial
    B. executive, legislative, military
    C. bureaucratic, military, industry
    D. federal, state, local

    4) What was the main issue in the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858?
    A. Is slavery morally wrong?
    B. Would slavery be allowed to expand to new territories?
    C. Do Southern states have the constitutional right to leave the union?
    D. Are free African Americans citizens of the United States?

    5) The United States Electoral College:
    A. trains those aspiring for higher political office
    B. was established to supervise the first televised presidential debates
    C. is otherwise known as the U.S. Congress
    D. is a constitutionally mandated assembly that elects the president
    E. was ruled undemocratic by the Supreme Court

    6) The Bill of Rights explicitly prohibits:
    A. prayer in public school
    B. discrimination based on race, sex, or religion
    C. the ownership of guns by private individuals
    D. establishing an official religion for the United States
    E. the president from vetoing a line item in a spending bill

    7) What was the source of the following phrase: “Government of the people, for the people, by the people”?
    A. the speech “I Have a Dream”
    B. Declaration of Independence
    C. U.S. Constitution
    D. Gettysburg Address

    8) In 1935 and 1936 the Supreme Court declared that important parts of the New Deal were unconstitutional. President Roosevelt responded by threatening to:
    A. impeach several Supreme Court justices
    B. eliminate the Supreme Court
    C. appoint additional Supreme Court justices who shared his views
    D. override the Supreme Court’s decisions by gaining three-quarter majorities in both houses of Congress

    9) Under Our Constitution, some powers belong to the federal government. What is one power of the federal government?
    A. Make treaties
    B. Make zoning laws
    C. Maintain prisons
    D. Establish standards for doctors and lawyers

    10) Name one right or freedom guaranteed by the first amendment.
    A. Right to bear arms
    B. Due process
    C. Religion
    D. Right to counsel

    11) What impact did the Anti-Federalists have on the United States Constitution?
    A. their arguments helped lead to the adoption of the Bill of Rights
    B. their arguments helped lead to the abolition of the slave trade
    C. their influence ensured that the federal government would maintain a standing army
    D. their influence ensured that the federal government would have the power to tax

    12) Which of the following statements is true about abortion?
    A. it was legal in most states in the 1960s
    B. the Supreme Court struck down most legal restrictions on it in Roe v. Wade
    C. the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that underage women must notify their parents of an impending abortion
    D. the National Organization for Women has lobbied for legal restrictions on it
    E. it is currently legal only in cases of rape or incest, or to protect the life of the mother

    13) Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas would concur that:
    A. all moral and political truth is relative to one’s time and place
    B. moral ideas are best explained as material accidents or byproducts of evolution
    C. values originating in one’s conscience cannot be judged by others
    D. Christianity is the only true religion and should rule the state
    E. certain permanent moral and political truths are accessible to human reason

    14) The Puritans:
    A. opposed all wars on moral grounds
    B. stressed the sinfulness of all humanity
    C. believed in complete religious freedom
    D. colonized Utah under the leadership of Brigham Young
    E. were Catholic missionaries escaping religious persecution

    15) The phrase that in America there should be a “wall of separation” between church and state appears in:
    A. George Washington’s Farewell Address
    B. the Mayflower Compact
    C. the Constitution
    D. the Declaration of Independence
    E. Thomas Jefferson’s letters

    16) In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
    A. argued for the abolition of slavery
    B. advocated black separatism
    C. morally defended affirmative action
    D. expressed his hopes for racial justice and brotherhood
    E. proposed that several of America’s founding ideas were discriminatory

    17) Sputnik was the name given to the first:
    A. telecommunications system
    B. animal to travel to space
    C. hydrogen bomb
    D. manmade satellite

    18) Susan B. Anthony was a leader of the movement to
    A. guarantee women the right to vote in national elections
    B. guarantee former slaves the right to vote
    C. ensure that harsher laws against criminals were passed
    D. reduce the authority of the Constitution of the United States

    19) The Scopes “Monkey Trial” was about:
    A. freedom of the press
    B. teaching evolution in the schools
    C. prayer in the schools
    D. education in private schools

    20) Who is the commander in chief of the U.S. military?
    A. Secretary of the army
    B. Secretary of state
    C. President
    D. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs

    21) Name two countries that were our enemies during World War II.
    A. Canada and Mexico
    B. Germany and Japan
    C. England and Spain
    D. China and Russia

    22) What part of the government has the power to declare war?
    A. Congress
    B. the president
    C. the Supreme Court
    D. the Joint Chiefs of Staff

    23) In October 1962 the United States and the Soviet Union came close to war over the issue of Soviet:
    A. control of East Berlin
    B. missiles in Cuba
    C. support of the Ho Chi Minh regime in Viet Nam
    D. military support of the Marxist regime in Afghanistan

    24) In the area of United States foreign policy, Congress shares power with the:
    A. president
    B. Supreme Court
    C. state governments
    D. United Nations

    25) Free enterprise or capitalism exists insofar as:
    A. experts managing the nation’s commerce are appointed by elected officials
    B. individual citizens create, exchange, and control goods and resources
    C. charity, philanthropy, and volunteering decrease
    D. demand and supply are decided through majority vote
    E. government implements policies that favor businesses over consumers

    26) Business profit is:
    A. cost minus revenue
    B. assets minus liabilities
    C. revenue minus expenses
    D. selling price of a stock minus its purchase price
    E. earnings minus assets

    27) Free markets typically secure more economic prosperity than government’s centralized planning because:
    A. the price system utilizes more local knowledge of means and ends
    B. markets rely upon coercion, whereas government relies upon voluntary compliance with the law
    C. more tax revenue can be generated from free enterprise
    D. property rights and contracts are best enforced by the market system
    E. government planners are too cautious in spending taxpayers’ money

    28) A progressive tax:
    A. encourages more investment from those with higher incomes
    B. is illustrated by a 6% sales tax
    C. requires those with higher incomes to pay a higher ratio of taxes to income
    D. requires every income class to pay the same ratio of taxes to income
    E. earmarks revenues for poverty reduction

    29) A flood-control levee (or National Defense) is considered a public good because:
    A. citizens value it as much as bread and medicine
    B. a resident can benefit from it without directly paying for it
    C. government construction contracts increase employment
    D. insurance companies cannot afford to replace all houses after a flood
    E. government pays for its construction, not citizens

    30) Which of the following fiscal policy combinations would a government most likely follow to stimulate economic activity when the economy is in a severe recession?
    A. increasing both taxes and spending
    B. increasing taxes and decreasing spending
    C. decreasing taxes and increasing spending
    D. decreasing both taxes and spending

    31) International trade and specialization most often lead to which of the following?
    A. an increase in a nation’s productivity
    B. a decrease in a nation’s economic growth in the long term
    C. an increase in a nation’s import tariffs
    D. a decrease in a nation’s standard of living

    32) Which of the following is a policy tool of the Federal Reserve?
    A. raising or lowering income taxes
    B. increasing or decreasing unemployment benefits
    C. buying or selling government securities
    D. increasing or decreasing government spending

    33) If taxes equal government spending, then:
    A. government debt is zero
    B. printing money no longer causes inflation
    C. government is not helping anybody
    D. tax per person equals government spending per person
    E. tax loopholes and special-interest spending are absent


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    23 November 2008

    Screens

    Defender of the Printed Word:
    Elisha Cook, Jr., as Samuel Cogley


    There’s an episode of the old Star Trek series, entitled “Court Martial,” in which Captain Kirk is accused of murder and somewhat dismayed to discover that his defense attorney is still consulting books. You know, bound paper pages with printed text on them. In the 23rd century, with its all-knowing, all-powerful computers, books are considered unwieldy, outmoded, underperforming. And so before defending Kirk, the attorney (played by Elisha Cook, Jr.) must defend the book itself. To sum up his argument, a book is trustworthy. Before the episode is out, the old boy has been proven right, because computer manipulation is precisely how Kirk got framed. You couldn’t monkey with a book that way, by golly.

    Because that episode was written (by Don M. Mankiewicz and Steven W. Carabatsos) and filmed (yes, on film) in 1966, today’s viewers may not grasp just how prescient it was. At the time, computers were still mammoth objects requiring punch cards and all sorts of oddly analog technology; they hadn’t been linked to video, or to any kind of imaging, and they hadn’t entered the home or the public consciousness. If they posed any threat to established societal norms, the threat was treated as comedy — as in the Katharine Hepburn–Spencer Tracy movie, The Desk Set — in which old-fashioned human heads and hands would always prevail. As recently as a few years ago, with the Internet revolution already underway (and already largely victorious), the consensus was that it would not — could not — replace the printed word. You can’t read a computer in bed, as you can a book, and you can’t read a computer in the bathroom, as you can a magazine or newspaper, it was said by many people (including me), and therefore society would hold onto these things, albeit to a lesser degree than in centuries past. With the apparent success, still small-scale, of the Kindle and similar hand-held devices, we are daily being proven wrong. Soon, and much earlier than the 23rd century, it will be only old cranks like Jim Kirk’s attorney who consult the printed page. And that’s just for starters.

    To the publishing industry, the new developments have proven catastrophic, and we have yet to see the emergence of the genius who figures out how newspapers, magazines, and book publishers can adapt satisfactorily: everything being done so far is piecemeal and patchwork, and the decision-makers are in a panic. In the good old days, a newspaper sold advertising space, which the subscriber was presumed to read with the same regularity and trust (or gullibility) as that with which she read the headlines; advertisers understood this, and a reliable commerce was established. Today I read The New York Times online, without paying to do so (it’s no longer required), and the Times website and its advertisers resort to sneaky tricks to make sure I pay attention to their pitches. (The worst of these is the “redirection,” in which one clicks on a link to an article, but is redirected to an advertisement instead. There’s no analogy to this in the printed edition: no advertisement actually prevents my looking at the article I seek.) Yet ad revenues continue to decline, and the reader can get news from any number of sites. If the reader isn’t picky about what constitutes reliable reporting, the choices are beyond counting.

    This is having drastic effects on editorial content, with potentially grave ramifications for society. A morning edition is no longer sufficient for any newspaper, because readers may consult the site at any hour, with the expectation of the latest information; all news sites must be updated continually. (This is more menacing even than the “24-hour news cycle” initiated by CNN, which has altered the electorate’s perceptions — a leader is considered ineffectual if s/he requires more than a few hours to respond to an emergency — and diverted its attention from pressing issues to soap-operatic stories like the Anna Nicole Smith saga.) Magazines that print weekly must now update their websites daily, or more frequently. That’s well and good for People, but tough for The New Yorker, with higher standards of style and content. It’s tough to crank out thoughtful writing at high speed; there’s no time to polish the prose. (On the other hand, the Internet permits one to continue editing long after publishing — as I do, revising these little essays compulsively.) Mainstream publications now promise “exclusive content” that sounds good, but it can’t be protected: it’s downloaded by amateurs and posted globally — and why would a reader pay to read something on a magazine’s website that she could find for free on a blog? Never mind that 99 percent of the rest of the material on the blog is factually inaccurate and possibly misleading.

    So how can a publication continue to make enough money to stay afloat — to pay for the reporting — to keep citizens informed? Most can’t, which is why you see massive layoffs, and formerly reputable news outlets such as the Los Angeles Times promising to adjust reporting to the needs of advertisers.

    What’s most terrifying to all the decision-makers in the print media is that a significant chunk of the American public reads almost nothing. Market research can even pinpoint who those non-readers are: heterosexual males. They are otherwise occupied with video games and Internet pornography to pick up a novel. Heterosexual women still read what’s called “chick lit,” and gay men read the gay equivalent, and that’s it; demographics for nonfiction are only a little more reassuring. Thus book publishers are increasingly unwilling to accept any work that isn’t a “sure thing” — ideally a hot topic addressed as nonfiction by a celebrity author.

    I read the news today, oh boy.
    The Kindle, with several former trees


    Of course, digital technology has upended every kind of communication, and the related businesses.

    Television news can be produced more cheaply now. As outlets such as New York One have proven, it’s now possible for a reporter in the field to function as camera operator, sound operator, editor, producer, researcher — a one-person news team, paid a single salary instead of twelve. That’s great, but it bypasses the old system of checks and balances, and if the lone reporter is in haste to make air, or misled by an interview subject, who’s to raise a red flag or pull the story altogether?

    There are commercial ramifications, too. A cursory glance at YouTube, for example, demonstrates that it must be incredibly easy to take a clip from a news program, whether broadcast or cable, and to post it where it’s readily accessible, without any consideration for the original program’s advertisers (the ads are cut out) or for the paychecks of the men and women who reported the story. YouTube has a further advantage over television: the clips stay up indefinitely, creating a news archive that can be searched, then personalized by bookmarking or “favoriting”. Did you miss Barack Obama’s speech on race? I did — but no fear, it’s still on the Internet, and one of these days, I’ll get around to watching it.

    Confident: Dan Rather

    The broadcast networks were under pressure already from the 24-hour cable stations to keep current: instead of making an appointment to watch the evening news, the viewer can turn to CNN at any moment that’s convenient. That pressure is intensified by the increased competition from the Internet — and by the consequent dwindling financial resources. Dan Rather has long insisted that, ultimately, Americans will gravitate toward news outlets, whether print or electronic, that are reliably accurate, and to a degree, I think he’s right. But accuracy is more often defined now by ideology (Fox News, e.g.) than by authority (the mainstream media), and in any case the difference between accuracy and authenticity is semantic, in a nation whose citizens no longer see the point in visiting the real Venice when the fake one is so much cleaner and closer by — and hey, you can gamble in the one that’s in Las Vegas.

    Cabell: Record Holder

    The recording industry has been hammered by the ease of downloading music: there’s no means, at present, of protecting copyright or insisting on payment for recorded material. This is especially threatening to classical music, which is more expensive to produce quite simply because it entails more paychecks — an orchestra of 60, instead of a band of four; a chorus of 60, instead of a chorus of three; a dozen lead singers, instead of one. It is thus a very big deal when a record label launches new talent (such as the young soprano Nicole Cabell, on Decca), signs known but still-rising singers (such as Joyce DiDonato, on EMI), or sticks with established stars (such as Susan Graham, on Warner). [I have just written an article, for Opera News, on the solo album and the changing marketplace; that article will appear in the magazine’s January issue.]

    Dessay, with a few friends

    Already the labels are turning more frequently to live performances to record complete operas (which is great for immediacy, not so great for correcting a missed entrance or sour note), whether for audio or video release. That’s a smart solution, but not a lasting one, because yet again the recorded material shows up for free on the Internet almost instantaneously. The video quality on YouTube is still lousy, the sound quality on my laptop little better, but I can watch enough of Natalie Dessay in Laurent Pelly’s staging of La Fille du Régiment that I don’t mind waiting to buy the DVD.

    Book publishers and record labels alike suffer — perhaps surprisingly — with the rise of online shopping. Already the behemoth chain stores, whether Barnes & Noble or Tower Records, had gobbled up independent merchants, forcing little guys out of business both through sheer size and through their ability to discount prices far below what mom-and-pop shops could afford. Retribution was swift, as online stores — most notably Amazon — cut prices further, with delivery to the doorstep of the purchaser or the recipient of a gift. Tower went under, Walden Books got bought out, etc.; the shakeout continues, yet even Amazon is sweating, because more and more consumers are turning to downloads (which offer almost-instantaneous delivery, and thus instant gratification) of music and video from services such as iTunes, and many more turn to “sharing” downloads — that is, not paying for the material.

    Quite apart from the financial questions, the consumer is getting fooled by the ease and availability of downloads. For anyone old enough to remember browsing in a brick-and-mortar book or record store, it’s clear that “browsing” an online merchant’s offerings is a completely different process. The chances of stumbling across something you weren’t seeking, never heard of, didn’t expect to like — and having your worldview changed (which any good piece of music or writing will do) — are reduced almost to nothingness.

    Progress

    Every time I place an order with Amazon, I receive “recommendations” of “related titles you may like.” Without fail, these are better-known works than the ones I ordered — more popular, more obvious. And in the case of my classical-music purchases, the “recommendations” usually are far off-base. That I admire Gabriel Bacquier and Thomas Hampson doesn’t mean I want to buy a Josh Groban album, even if I did buy an N*Sync album recently. (I had my reasons.) That I admire Marilyn Horne and Ewa Podles´ doesn’t mean I don’t want to buy an Alberta Hunter, Cyndi Lauper, or Tammy Wynette album. The link here is not only genre but diva-worship; no one at Amazon understands that. Except when I go to a specialty site, I find that classical music is badly served on the Internet — because of the ignorance of those who serve it. Since music education in America is extinct, there’s no question why this is so, nor is there reason to hope for improvement. The consumer will continue to suffer, though I daresay we’ll continue to find it easier to do so.

    Hollywood is experiencing comparable difficulties: films and television shows can be downloaded, legally or otherwise, and again YouTube and other sites provide clips, and in some cases entire episodes or movies. Thanks to YouTube, for example, I was able to celebrate the hundredth birthday of Bette Davis by watching What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The film is chopped up into ten segments, but it’s all there, free for the taking.

    Ya mean he didn’t pay, Blanche?

    Moreover, more folks at home are taking advantage of new technology to make their own video programming. Some of this is about as interesting as watching slides of your cousin’s trip to Chippewa Falls, and many clips wouldn’t make the grade on America’s Funniest Home Videos. But some of the original content is pretty good.

    One of my favorites is a sporadic series of dialogues by VGL Gay Boys, two New York comics. You wouldn’t want to watch them at work, because that’s time theft, not because they’re smutty. You could play their stuff for your mother — well, not my mother, but yours. In time-honored tradition, Jeffery Self is unflappable, Cole Escola overexcitable (and does a brilliant Bernadette Peters imitation) while discussing the contemporary scene; it’s not hard to imagine them translating this to longer, narrative projects, like Hope & Crosby, Abbott & Costello, or Martin & Lewis before them. Elsewhere on the Internet, a fan-produced series of new Star Trek episodes was so well-done that some of the participants in the television series dropped by, and the path to the next movie sequel was paved: for the first time on the big screen, the original characters will be played by new, young actors, instead of by the original cast.

    Already I’ve attended dinner parties where, at the end of the meal, we’ve sat around watching YouTube clips, much the way my parents’ generation used to play comedy albums at a party. For many people, watching even substandard material on the Internet has replaced older viewing habits; if they watch broadcast or cable television at all, they record the program (using TiVo, DVR, etc.), skip over the commercials, watch numerous times (or not at all) at their own convenience, then move on to something else.

    A lot of what gets posted on YouTube is pirated. Long before the recent revival of Sondheim’s Company closed, it was possible to watch Raúl Esparza’s shattering account of “Being Alive,” live in performance, because somebody recorded it with a cell phone and posted it. This is a complete violation of almost every rule — including those that admonish spectators to turn off their cell phones — but it doesn’t seem to matter. Tap in “South Pacific,” and you’re liable to get a selection ranging from Kelli O’Hara in the current revival, Mitzi Gaynor in the movie, Mary Martin in the original production, and some high school kids in suburban Arkansas. None of the producers, nor any of the creative people involved, gets any money from this. And without money, there will be fewer new productions, fewer new works.

    Here again, the people with the money want projects without risk: in Hollywood, this means witless, explosion-filled blockbusters on the big screen, “reality” programming on the small, and on Broadway, it means tourist-attraction mega-musicals in which all artistic considerations are subordinate to the spectacle and to the familiarity of the source material. Broadway shows are directed to tourists who liked the movie Legally Blonde and want to say they’ve seen a Broadway musical, and to those who want to say they’ve seen Beauty and the Beast because the neighbors saw it six years ago. They don’t care who’s in the show, who wrote it, or what it sounds like.*

    VGL: Escola & Self

    Thus Kelli O’Hara and Raúl Esparaza may have difficulty finding good parts in new musicals (or even in good revivals) any time soon, and that the VGL Gay Boys may have even greater difficulty finding backing for the longer-form material I’d like to see.

    For what it’s worth, the adult-entertainment business is suffering, too. Who wants to pay $30 or $40 for a porn DVD, when you can download the original for free, or find something equally free, with amateurs doing something equally hardcore, on XTube? Sure, the production values are lousy, and the models are seldom attractive in any conventional way, but it turns out that the average viewer wasn’t interested in anything but the old in-and-out. And maybe it’s easier to fantasize when you can’t really see or hear what’s happening onscreen.

    Technology expert and social critic Aniston

    Still photography, especially photojournalism, has felt the digital impact, too, and the industry responded much as others have. The advent of new technology made editing, researching, and delivering photos easier, but it also created an enormous backlog: every photograph since the age of Niepce and Daguerre had to be digitized and catalogued, or it couldn’t be sold. This was more than most small agencies could handle; they simply didn’t have the staff. Meanwhile, prices were falling, because suddenly everybody could take decent pictures; books and magazines, beset with their own financial woes, couldn’t afford to pay as much as they used to, and likewise couldn’t afford to commission photographers for as many exclusive shoots. Exclusivity (and copyright) became a moot concept, because once published, an image would be scanned and uploaded on the Internet, where everybody and her sister could get it for free, make a personal scrapbook or publish it again, to illustrate a webpage or blog (like this one, I confess), from which even more people would download it. None of us are paying rights.

    Smaller agencies collapsed; many shut down, while others happily allowed themselves to get bought up by a tiny handful of mega-agencies. The consequences are precisely those that we’ve seen in other industries: greater ease, less selection, less new work. Where fashion photography is concerned, that’s not so much a problem: digital technology has not yet replaced clothing, so some people are still making enough money to pay for pictures.

    But where photojournalism is concerned, conglomeration poses the same threats to American liberty as those posed by the megacorporations that now control television and radio journalism. Independent reporting is squelched. Any digital data can be manipulated: pictures can be Photoshopped, sounds can be distorted easily. But viewers and listeners, readers and voters can be easily manipulated, too. We saw that in the buildup to the Iraq War; we saw it on Star Trek.

    Thus the ramifications of the digital revolution implicate anybody who works with words, sounds, and images — namely, almost everyone I know, and everyone like us. It is as if we were all medieval monks, happily illuminating manuscripts until the day Herr Gutenberg cranked up his printing press. Those monks had other work to fall back on; the rest of us don’t. Many of my friends are currently under-employed, or unemployed. The better allusion may be not to monks but to dinosaurs: if we can’t adapt, we’ll die. Adaptation won’t be any easier, when the rest of the world’s economy is in crisis. T.S. Eliot could find work in a bank, but I’ll bet that I can’t, nowadays.

    We’ve all been so caught up in the benefits of the digital revolution that few of us have taken stock of the liabilities. They’re graver than we know, since they’re only just emerging, and many, as I say, are long-term threats. The New York Times has devoted its Sunday magazine to the revolution, yet one can see at a glance (starting with its cover girl, Jennifer Aniston, that great expert on information technology) that the reporters and their interview subjects have failed to grasp the magnitude of the change, much less to uncover any hopeful routes to survival. That’s what prompted the present outburst. How can we endure when words, images, and sounds are simultaneously more highly valued, more widely distributed, and less highly paid than ever before?

    To many of my readers, none of what I’ve said will be news. “Of course the sky is falling, Chicken Little, but what do you intend to do about it?”

    I’ll send you an e-mail when I figure that out.


    *I’m not sure that Broadway audiences can hear at all. Microphones and amplifiers on the last few musicals I’ve seen were cranked to ear-splitting levels — I won’t even venture into a rock musical, simply because I fear I’ll never hear anything again. Recordings, with the forward placement of the vocalist (in any genre), gave listeners unreasonable expectations of the human voice’s capacities to project; rock recordings made listeners deaf. Thus, even for a conventional musical such as The Producers, the music blasts out of speakers bigger than Nathan Lane, robbing the show of its human dimension; even when the guy is standing right in front of you, you’re not hearing his voice, you’re hearing a machine’s representation of his voice — very, very loud. Among the great pleasures of my recent trip to New York was hearing musical-comedy numbers sung by Kelli O’Hara and Paolo Szot at the Richard Tucker Foundation Gala — without amplification. Oh, it was wonderful — until the microphones came out.




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    22 November 2008

    The Sock Crisis in America

    I was downhearted, because I had no shoes.
    And then I met a man who had no socks.


    Dear Friend:

    If you’re like most Americans, when your sock gets a hole in it, you ignore it. “Maybe it will go away by itself,” you think.

    If the hole is in the toe of the sock, perhaps you pull the sock forward, then tuck the end under your foot as you slip on your shoe. If the hole is in the ankle region, or on the side of the foot, you tell yourself that no one will notice, or if they do, they’ll think it’s just an unusual pattern in the knitting.

    If the hole is in the region of the heel, or the ball of the foot, you avoid wearing mules, clogs, or flip-flops, that might make the hole too conspicuous, while each night you come home to find new blisters, to say nothing of the head colds, influenza, and irritable bowel syndrome that can come from exposure of the feet to inclement conditions due to global warming.

    And then, as the hole in the side of the sock grows larger, you do what we all do: you take a Magic Marker and draw on your skin until the color matches the sock, unless of course the sock is white, in which case you use Liquid Paper.

    But one day the hole can’t be ignored any longer. We’ve all been there. We’ve suffered the cruel taunts and jeers. “Holey Socks.” “Poor Man’s Fishnets.” “Guess He’s Got Foot’n’Moth Disease.” “No Knit, No Wit.” “Woolly Bully.” And the cruelest of all: “Yarn Killer.”

    “Sure,” you tell yourself, “I’m a big boy, and I can handle it.” Eventually, the cycle of shame forces you to go out and buy a new pair of socks. But what of Distressed Knitwear Syndrome’s youngest victims?

    Sociologists are only now beginning to analyze quantitatively the psychic damage that’s done on these occasions; the results of a ten-year study on DKS by the International Institute for Advanced Yarn and Thread Studies, in Lanolin, Montana, are eagerly anticipated. But a few conclusions are clear already.

    “Given the current economic crisis, Americans won’t have the financial resources to purchase new socks,” says Dr. Pearl Needleman. “Already, large numbers of us are being forced to choose between new socks and basic, everyday requirements, such as medicine, gasoline, and beer. Cheaply produced knitwear, often outsourced to other countries where standards of yarn density fall below regulated American norms, means that socks are wearing out faster.

    “America is unraveling,” Dr. Needleman continues. “The emotional and psychological repercussions for the next generation of consumers, those currently between the ages of twelve months (when walking typically begins) and twelve years (when many of the girls begin wearing synthetic hosiery), represents a grave thread to this country’s future well-being, into the 22nd Century and be yarn.”

    Current trends pose a threat to the American economy, as well, independent yarn-industry analyst Melvin Fliess argues. “According to the latest figures, Americans don’t even outsource knitwear repair anymore,” he says. “Ultimately, either they patch the hole — which is only a Band-Aid solution — or they throw the garment out. We’re pulling the wool over our eyes if we don’t accept that we’re on the brink of shear catastrophe, spinning toward disaster.”

    But there is a solution.

    Darning.

    Yes, darning. It’s a word few of us know, a skill even fewer of us possess. But if we at the Drive for American Repair Needlework and Interrelated Techniques have our way, soon every youngster will be able to mend his or her own socks.

    No more surreptitious tucking, no more unsightly patches, no more toxic Magic Markers or hazardous stapling. Just good old all-American darning. It’s the cheapest, safest way to repair socks — and it’s great for sweaters, too!

    In one national survey, last year, the majority of third-graders (63 percent) believed that “darning” was merely a polite way to say ‘damn.’ A significant number (27 percent) believed the word to be a euphemism for “sexual intercourse,” and of those, 2 percent of third-graders “strongly believed” they could do it better than most adults, having seen so much of it on the Internet. In all, only a shocking 6 percent of third-graders could define “darning” correctly.

    “We’re gamboling with our children’s future!” warns Fliess. “This isn’t simply a problem for me, it’s a problem for ewe, for all of us, and weave got to do something about it.”

    Clearly, it’s time for a change — not a change of socks, but a change in the way we think about socks. We’d like to give every boy and girl in this country a darning egg and a needle, and we’re lobbying state school systems to make darning education mandatory nationwide, effective immediately.


    You know the old saying: “Give a man a pair of socks, and his feet will be warm for the rest of the day. But teach a man to darn, and his feet will be warm for the rest of his life.”

    Unfortunately, our campaign can’t succeed without your help. Qualified instructors must be trained: there simply aren’t enough nuns and Amish ladies right now to do the job. Eggs must be lathed, or whatever you call it. And lobbyists must be paid, in order to ram this sweeping change through every state legislature.

    So won’t you give today? All it takes is a little bit of money — and a lot of wool power.

    Yours sincerely,

    Lambert Merino
    Director,
    The Drive for American Repair Needlework and Interrelated Techniques
    (D.A.R.N.I.T.)


    P.S. For your convenience, why not just use the area below, marked “Comments,” to send your name and credit card information? Do it now!


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    21 November 2008

    Madeline Kahn: Progress Report 1

    The young Madeline goes for Baroque
    Photo Courtesy of Jeffrey Kahn


    It’s not my intention to pre-publish Madeline Kahn’s biography in this space — you will have to wait to read it, and you will, I hope, pay willingly for the privilege of doing so. But I’ve just spent several weeks in the United States, beginning my research and interviews for what promises to be a great story, and I’d like to share a few initial impressions. She was, from what I can tell, precisely the kind of girl I’d have fallen for when I was younger.

    If I’d known her when she was in college, I’d have worshiped her. She was wonderfully smart — the Dean’s List at Hofstra, I discovered — with a questing mind and an enduring desire to explore. Many of the subjects that interested her are ones that interest me, and in going through her appointment books (on which I pounced), I see that she meticulously recorded every movie, opera, concert, and art exhibition she attended. Sure, a lot of actresses go to the movies because they think it will be good for their careers: they hope to work with a particular director some day, or they want to be seen at a premiere. But Madeline’s interests seem sincere, personal. She preferred ordinary, everyday screenings at New York’s movie houses, and as for professional aspirations, she can’t seriously have hoped to be cast in an Ingmar Bergman movie: yet she assiduously caught every picture as it came out. Again and again, I found myself wanting to speak to her, to ask not about dates and places but about what she thought of a picture or a piece of music.

    Those appointment books are kept with a graceful handwriting, and you can go months without finding a misspelled word or fault in punctuation. I like that about her, too. (I wish she’d kept a journal — but a biographer can’t have everything.)

    I don’t mean to suggest that her appeal is exclusively intellectual. She was beautiful, as you can see. And a Jewish girl who loves music and who acts — well, that’s a well-known recipe for stealing my heart.

    I’m much interested in Madeline Kahn’s development as a performer, and so it was almost distressing to discover recordings she made around 1965 — when she was 23 and freshly graduated from Hofstra. On two albums of revue shows at Upstairs at the Downstairs, a Manhattan nightclub, I hear the singing voice already mature, and the speaking voice already imbued with that strange musicality that so distinguishes her work on film and television. However her performing persona evolved, the process was nearly complete by the time she made her New York debut.*

    Singing for her supper: At the Bavarian Manor
    Photo Courtesy of Jeffrey Kahn


    You can see her poise in photographs from one early job, singing Friml and Romberg numbers at a Long Island restaurant called the Bavarian Manor. (The gemütlich surroundings inspired her to use a stage name for the only time in her career: “Madeline Kahn” being perhaps a bit too Jewish, she adapted her middle name, Gail, to become “Madeline Gale.”) A few, fascinating pictures show her in — of all things — the madrigal opera L’Amfiparnaso by the Baroque composer Orazio Vecchi. If these pictures were taken yesterday, you’d say some college kid was imitating Madeline Kahn — but she’s the original article, at merely 21 years of age. The trademark verve is already in place, as you can see.

    L’Amfirparnaso isn’t an easy sing, either, and I understand better that she really might have had a career in opera. In 1970, she sang Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème for what would become the Washington National Opera, opposite the Marcello of Alan Titus, later one of the great Wotans of our time. I’m told that James Levine, maestro of the Metropolitan, is an enthusiastic admirer, and I know that she met sometimes with Julius Rudel, then the director of New York City Opera; it’s easy to imagine her being engaged for Die Fledermaus, say, singing to great acclaim, whenever and wherever she chose. Instead, she confined her singing to other stages and the screen, but both Teresa Stratas and Marilyn Horne tell me she came backstage after every performance at the Met, to pay her compliments.

    Very often, then, I wonder what other directions her career might have taken, especially during the 1980s, when she weathered a number of weak films and short-lived television series. I wonder, too, what roles she might be playing now, had she lived. She yearned for meatier parts, and the thought of her as Amanda Wingfield, in The Glass Menagerie, thrills me, to cite just one example that might exploit her gifts for humor and pathos. (As well as her musicality — since the text of Glass Menagerie is very much a score for the English language.) Maybe you can think of other parts you’d have liked to see her in.

    As I talk with people who knew Madeline Kahn, I’m getting a sense of her personality, too — but I’ll save that for another time. The effect of all this research, though, is something very like a crush, on a woman I never met.

    That may be a danger, a setup for disillusionment, although I’m prepared for Madeline Kahn — indeed, for anybody I admire — to possess a few foibles and faults. I’ve been lucky enough to work very closely with two people whom I admired extravagantly before I ever met them: Teresa Stratas and Dan Rather. Neither turned out, on close inspection, to be a saint. That doesn’t detract from their achievements, however; each remains the best in the field. And if my association with them meant knocking them off of pedestals, it compensated with better understanding. Idolatry was replaced with deeper, more substantial feeling. (My trip to New York entailed remarkably happy reunions with Teresa and Dan, neither of whom had I seen in a long while.) So, too, I expect will be my experience of Madeline Kahn.

    It’s in the nature of such projects that, for their authors, they take on the quality of a personal adventure. Mine has begun.

    *Madeline Kahn’s female cohorts at Upstairs at the Downstairs are especially noteworthy, including Fannie Flagg, a certain Genna Carter (before she changed her name to Dixie), and the omnipotent Ms. Lily Tomlin. Another costar was one of my boyhood idols, Betty Aberlin, who turns out to have been a Manhattanite and college graduate, not a Pittsburgh high-school student, when she was cast in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I’m confident that Fred Rogers never heard her imitation of a phone-sex operator before inviting her to the Land of Make-Believe.


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    20 November 2008

    Quantum & Quality

    Being an Excerpt from an Unpublished Spy Novel
    by an Anonymous Author


    It was widely said of Jane Bond that the benefits of her otherwise admirable measure of beauty were useless to her, as she was nearly thirty, and her dowry much less than one hundred pounds, along with a large ball of string, which it had been her late father’s habit to collect, and to study, and which was much praised throughout the county. In her youth, long ago, Miss Bond had acquired such skills of sewing, painting, and dancing that might have won her a match, had her father not burdened her with considerable debts, a ready wit, and an instruction in French grammar, and ‘No man will take a bride who speaks her mind, particularly if he does not understand her when she speaks it,’ Mrs. Bond had warned them both, from the outset, to no avail. Among the other, gossiping ladies of Maidsworth, it was said further that Miss Bond had once enjoyed a round of whist with a man who was known to be in trade, the shame of which nearly exceeded its whispering report. Her reputation thus compromised, it seemed likely she must perforce remain unmarried; having failed to exact a promise from Mr. Woodcock, the new curate in Maidsworth, and having no other expectation but the management of her widowed mother and fourteen younger sisters, Miss Bond saw no recourse but to seek employment, suitable to a lady of good family and no property; either as governess to a country household, or as agent in His Majesty’s Secret Service.

    ‘Might we stroll a moment about the garden?’ Mr. Smallwood inquired; ‘for the closeness of the ballroom and the exertion of our last quadrille have made of cooler air a necessity for me, and perhaps for you, as well, I may venture.’

    ‘How I regret your words, sir, for I should have been content to take a glass of punch and to sit for a moment here, by the open window, though I am usually susceptible to any draught,’ Jane replied; ‘but I cannot accept even that engagement, nor any future one, in your company, Mr. Smallwood, now that you have spoken. It would be in any case improper for a gentleman to pose such a question, to an unmarried woman, with neither prospects nor chaperone. Yet more pressingly, I am no longer unaware of your true identity, and of the jeopardy in which your roguish impertinence must place me, not only to my reputation, but to my very life. For, in making this proposal, you have revealed yourself at last to be the greatest scoundrel of them all, Napoléon Bonaparte, on a reconnaissance mission in Britain, with a view to conquest of these shores. Confess yourself, sir!’

    ‘I fear I fail to apprehend how a single question of remarkable innocence can have led you to so astonishing a conclusion,’ Mr. Smallwood replied.

    ‘I have for no small time observed you, sir,’ Jane said, ‘and it has not escaped my attention that you are short of stature, as Mr. Bonaparte is known to be; and although you profess yourself to be a major in the Highland Guards, your uniform bears buttons of the Royal Navy; and whenever the ranks of corporal and general are mentioned in conversation, you answer. These are ranks, sir, that you have held in the French Army, under the name, I repeat, not of Smallwood but of Bonaparte.’

    ‘There are, I assure you, Miss Jane, explanations of a perfectly simple nature for each of the anomalies that you perceive, and these explanations I shall most happily supply,’ Mr. Smallwood said, ‘at your earliest convenience, of which you may inform me by letter.’

    ‘I shall be most interested to receive such explanations,’ Jane said; ‘and perhaps, too, you can explain how it is that you persist in addressing me as “Miss Jane,” when, as the eldest daughter of my father, I am properly addressed only as “Miss Bond,” which any true Englishman would know, but a Corsican would not; and why it is that you keep one hand always in the breast of your waistcoat, precisely as Mr. Bonaparte is known to do, from the many paintings of him that have been much on public view.’

    At this, Mr. Smallwood smiled. ‘No such portrait has been circulated publicly on England’s shores, Miss Bond; for it is only in France that Napoléon is recognized as a great man,’ he said. ‘How is it possible that you, a simple country governess, may have observed such a painting? It is universally spoken of you that you are a keen observer, and yet your eyesight must be very good indeed, to see from a vantage in Maidsworth a painting that hangs in Paris.’

    The colour mounted in Jane’s cheeks. ‘As I am obliged to provide instruction in French to my charges,’ she said, ‘it has long been my custom to consult any journal or newspaper in that language that should come my way, from the hand of a man who has travelled; and in such a publication, it is only natural that an engraving should — ’

    ‘I put it to you roundly that you are a member of His Majesty’s Secret Service,’ Mr. Smallwood responded; ‘or else you are a silly girl, given to elaborate fancies, and most especially when in the company of a handsome single man of six thousand a year; which fancies and, indeed, hysteria a Frenchman might observe are typical of the puritanical English virgins when confronted with the virile Latin sex; whereas any French girl would have surrendered herself to me already without a care; though as an English gentleman I shall of course let the matter lie unspoken. Nevertheless, you are either a spy or a fool. Which is it to be, Miss Bond?’

    ‘I would advise you to invade Egypt instead of Britain, sir,’ Jane said, ‘for you will find it an easier conquest, having few defenses and no Christian as its sovereign; and to decline the Directoire’s heedless strategy for my country, which has brought you to these shores.’

    ‘You cannot think that Napoléon Bonaparte would undertake such a mission of reconnaissance alone and unaided,’ Mr. Smallwood said; ‘and — if I were he — I would therefore be surrounded by stout arms, ready to leap to my aid at but a signal.’

    ‘Arms do not leap,’ said Jane; ‘your phrase is inelegant. This is further proof that you are a Frenchman; I am never mistaken in my impressions. But I hope that I may answer you, sir, in a tone of becoming modesty, by allowing that, if I were an English spy, at a country dancing party which I suspected to be attended by foreign persons of questionable intention, I would not do so without carrying a weapon; and that a pistol of discreet proportions, but no less deadly, must therefore be concealed somewhere about my person.’

    ‘A pistol carries but a single bullet, Miss Bond,’ said Mr. Smallwood.

    ‘Even a very small bullet may suffice to bring about the death of a man, whether he be English with an annual income of six thousand, or French with a battery of henchmen,’ Jane replied; ‘and if I were to remove from this earth so odious a menace to my Crown, and to die for it, I should nonetheless count myself happy.’

    ‘See here, Miss Bond, about the bush let us beat no more. You are outnumbered,’ Mr. Smallwood said; ‘and if I may say so, outwitted. I am indeed Napoléon Bonaparte, and though I find myself on hostile shores, my prospects are happier than yours. For you, Miss Bond, are my prisoner.’

    Jane smiled now, and touched Mr. Smallwood lightly with her fan. ‘It is therefore incumbent upon you, Mr. Bonaparte,’ she said, ‘to do your worst.’

    ‘I shall, and with alacrity, Miss Bond,’ the imposter replied; ‘but prior to subjecting you to manifold tortures, of a violence and invention unthinkable to anyone but a Frenchman, I hope you will allow me to enlighten you on certain points of my plan for world domination.’

    ‘I can think of no more desirable an entertainment, sir, nor one more likely to improve the evening hours,’ Jane replied; ‘let us make haste to your carriage, and away.’


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    15 November 2008

    Zola Update

    I have come to a kind of crisis in my traversal of Emile Zola’s 20-volume series of novels, the Rougon-Macquart cycle, “the natural history of a family under the Second Empire.” Most of the books concern truly awful people, and Zola excels at depicting sordid behavior and outrageous events: I have reveled in the pages of L’Assommoir, Nana, Pot-Bouille, Germinal, La Terre, and La Bête Humaine. In the penultimate volume of the series, La Débâcle, the niceness of the characters is secondary to the Franco-Prussian War; the author’s fury at incompetent generals and at the ineffectual Emperor, Napoléon III, enlivens many passages, and the numerous scenes of combat are as grisly and wince-inducing as battlefield photographs might be.

    Now I’ve gotten to the cycle’s final volume, Le Docteur Pascal, and my distress mounts by the paragraph. I’m 100 pages in already, and not once has a single character cheated his aunties, passed out drunk, committed theft, arson, or adultery, staged a train wreck, or raped an old lady. What the hell?

    A very few of the Rougon-Macquart books are concerned with basically nice, fundamentally sane characters, but they’re tough slogging for this reader. La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret is about an earnest young priest who falls in love with a free-spirited girl, presumably shocking stuff in 19th-century France. But no fear — Abbet Mouret wouldn’t really break his priestly vows — his maxima culpa is only the result of a head injury! I’ve seen soap opera plots more daring. (I preferred a preceding volume, La Conquête de Plassans, in which another priest schemes his way to political prominence, while one local matron —Abbé Mouret’s mother, as it happens — develops a violently erotic crush on him.)

    I’ve written in this space about my dissatisfaction with the opening pages of Le Rêve, in which an angelic blonde orphan, stranded in the snow, is taken in by a kindly couple — I had to set that one aside for some other time. I managed to stay the course with Une Page d’amour, mainly because the heroine’s daughter turns out to be a deliciously manipulative hysteric. Threatened by the attraction between her mother and a handsome, wealthy neighbor, little Jeanne throws fits and succumbs to sudden fevers. She’ll stop at nothing to thwart her mother’s happiness. A truly dedicated little hypochondriac, she takes to her bed for months at a stretch — then dies.

    Portrait (by Manet) of the Author as a Young Man

    The Rougons (mostly ruthless predators, but prone to mental instability) and the Macquarts (mostly drunks and dreamers) behave as they do, Zola insists, because of particular genetic traits. In Le Docteur Pascal, the author attempts to assemble and to validate his theories of heredity; we see at last just how serious he was when he called this “A Natural History.” Helpfully, Zola lays out a family tree, in which characters are identified by moral and physical “élections”; that is, they take after the mother or the father, or a mixture of both, or some other ancestor. (A very few characters, including Dr. Pascal Rougon himself, take after neither side of the family, a natural phenomenon Zola acknowledges but can’t explain.)

    Anybody with a seventh-grade education in biology (which is about all I’ve got) knows that Zola’s theories don’t hold up, despite the way the author keeps stacking the deck in his own favor. All the while he wrote, the new field of psychology already was blowing gaping holes in his science, even as it corroborated his characterizations and plots. The books all remain perfectly plausible — Zola was too keen an observer, too relentless a researcher to write piffle — but sex, and not genetics, emerges as the great motivator in these tales.

    Everybody’s a critic: Zola’s support for Dreyfus made him unpopular with many.

    We come to Zola, as I say, for his unblinking eye, for his abilities to capture every detail in any segment of French society, to root out the very worst of human nature and still to entertain us. We don’t come to him for moral lessons, and we don’t come to him for uplift. Everyone in Le Docteur Pascal has behaved himself impeccably thus far — but I’m not yet ready to set the book aside. There’s much to be said for coming to the end of this saga, which has occupied me, on and off, for some six years.

    And besides, if you look closely at the Rougon-Macquart family tree, you’ll see that Dr. Pascal has a child, late in life — by his own niece. She’s his ward, by the way, and she’s also the daughter of the lovably odious Aristide Saccard (of La Curée and L’Argent). Somewhere in this book, there’s a story. I’m determined to find it.


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