28 March 2009

The Crêperie Josselin

My Texan godsons peruse the menu.

I ate a galette maraîchère for lunch today at the Crêperie Josselin, near the Gare Montparnasse. I’ve been going there for more years than I care to count — more than 15, fewer than 20 — and it’s safe to say that I’ve taken more meals at the Josselin than in any other restaurant in France. Bernard has favored the place since he was in college, when the proprietor, Marie-Thérèse, was the young woman we see in the portrait that hangs on one wall: she’s decked out in traditional Breton dress, including the lacy headdress called a bigoudin. (The brushwork is so impressionistic in that section of the painting that I’ve always doubted Marie-Thérèse wore a real bigoudin while she posed.) She still puts in hours in the kitchen, though not so many as she used to: I admire above all her ability to let the galette rest on the griddle precisely the right amount of time, so that the edges are wonderfully crispy, while the center remains soft and tender.

Marie-Thérèse: Her smile hasn’t changed.
(And no, the house does not accept credit cards.)

Precision, to say nothing of artistry, in preparing a crêpe is not something one naturally finds: this is the French antecedent of Le Fast-Food, produced in great numbers and at high speed by someone who, French terminology aside, is essentially a short-order cook. Crêpes are sold from little stands on the streets here, like hotdogs in New York, and the proximity of the Josselin to the train station is telling: people want to be served quickly, and to catch the next train. Even in France, there are occasions when one does not want to linger for hours over a meal.

One finds a lot of crêperies near the train stations in this country, but few can match the Josselin. Marie-Thérèse’s cooking is exceptional, but her welcome is more so, and she has trained her staff unfailingly: one does not enter without being greeted by one or more cries of “Bonjour, Monsieur,” and one does not depart without a chorus of “Merci, Monsieur! Au revoir!” I don’t for a minute believe they recognize me more than dimly, but it feels nice. Though the Josselin is in the big city, it retains its down-home touches. These also include the décor, which is a riot of earthenware tchotchkes and other souvenirs of Brittany, set against dark wooden booths, shelves, and wall paneling. This comforting ambiance made it easier for me to come here by myself, without French friends to mediate for me: a big step in my development as a French-speaker.

It’s important to make the distinction between the crêpe, which is made of a finely milled, white flour, and the galette, which is made of buckwheat flour and consequently somewhat coarser and heartier. Many French people eat their main-course on a galette and their dessert on a crêpe, but Bretons and true aficionados prefer buckwheat for both the main course and the dessert.

One of the greatest appeals of the galette is that very versatility: you can fill it with anything at all, and one reason I take my godchildren and other friends to the Josselin is my confidence that, no matter their tastes, they’ll find something they’ll like. (Little Grace from Los Angeles tested that theory, until she arrived at the dessert menu.) For me, the Josselin represents the height of comfort food, French-style, and if I have ever ordered anything other than the maraîchère, no one remembers it. The galette may be versatile, but I am not.

The maraîchère consists of spinach and crème fraîche (a staple of Breton cooking) on a galette, which is then folded into a quarter. Across this are spread a fried egg and several strips of bacon. Care must be taken when eating to assure the correct proportions of ingredients in every mouthful for the duration of the meal: it is a catastrophe to wind up with no spinach, or no bacon, with several forkfuls remaining of everything else. After my many years of practice, I’ve gotten quite good at maintaining the balance, and now as a challenge I also try to distribute evenly the crispy outer edges and the tender middle.

This is accompanied by a small pitcher of hard cider (and a carafe of water, when the waitress remembers it), and it’s followed by a noisette, a little cup of coffee with a splash of milk. I have never ordered a dessert there: call me crazy, but that’s how it is. Sometimes the staff used to cut me a break, and charge me the price of the set menu; since the economic troubles, I am charged full price: 14 Euros 20. It’s worth it.

The Josselin is listed in a number of guide books, many of which, it seems, are Japanese, and thus it draws its clientele from the world over — and from the neighborhood. There are always a lot of French businesspeople, and at the traditional lunch hour (1 to 2 PM), it’s difficult to get a table, though the staff does its best to jam us in. One hears a buzz of differing languages, and the menu is translated into English and Japanese. That’s not quite enough for the Babel that is Parisian tourism. Once an older Italian couple came in, and I was the only person present who could translate for them. I was extremely proud of myself, until I stumbled over the right word for “apple” in Italian. (I kept trying to say “eggplant.”) But Marie-Thérèse’s daughter was impressed, and she picked up the tab for my lunch.

On a cold, damp day, of the kind that Paris knows so well, there is no better pleasure than sitting down to a galette maraîchère, among folks who act exactly as if they’ve known you for years, and it would make no difference if they really had.

67 rue du Montparnasse
Paris, France, 75014
Phone: 01-43-20-93-50
Tuesday – Sunday
11:00 am - 3:00 pm
5:30 pm - 11:30 pm

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26 March 2009

Sur les trottoirs de Paris

The intersection of the Rue Pavée (horizontal)
and the Rue des Rosiers (vertical)

It is important to remind oneself from time to time that one lives in France, and not some other place. Therefore my “day off” in Paris last weekend included a bit of idling and strolling about, for which the French have a single, highly specific verb: flâner. This included trips down two of my favorite streets in Paris, beloved more for their names than for any other attractions that may lie there.

The first is the Rue Pavée, which means literally “Paved Street.” Because it’s paved. As opposed to, you know, all the other streets in Paris. It’s in the Marais, which is also home to the “Rue du Temple” (Temple Street) as well as the “Rue Vieille du Temple” (Old Temple Street), sources of infinite confusion, since they’re parallel and separated only by the Rue des Archives. If anybody is looking to rename a street in this city, I’ve got a candidate.

Rue Marie Stuart: No place for a nice Catholic girl

My second-favorite street-name is “Rue Marie Stuart,” just off the Rue Montorgeuil in the Second Arrondissement. It’s named after Mary, Queen of Scots, who was also Queen of France from 1559 to 1560, and who grew up in the Louvre a few blocks away, back in the days when it was a royal residence.

The story goes that she was roaming about the streets of Paris herself one day. Of course a monarch can’t merely “flâner”: she has to be attended by courtiers. She and her posse found themselves in a small street and she declared it charming. “What is the name?” she asked.

What the young lady didn’t realize was that the street in question was a hangout for prostitutes. The street had no name, other than “La Rue Tire-Boudin,” which means “Tug-on-the-Sausage Street.”

This is not the sort of thing one tells a princess, who is moreover a nice Catholic girl (lest we forget). Thinking fast, a courtier responded, “Why, it is named for you, Majesty!” And so it has been, ever since.

Mary, Queen of Frogs:
With her first husband, François II

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24 March 2009

Séraphine au Cinéma

Portrait of the Artist: Moreau as Séraphine Louis

Yolande Moreau, the wonderful actress about whom I wrote a few weeks ago, did indeed win the César for Best Actress last month, for her starring role in Séraphine. (Well, technically, she won for “Meilleure Actrice,” not “Best Actress,” but work with me here.) Yesterday, I saw the movie. It’s a fascinating portrait of a painter previously unknown to me, Séraphine Louis, and it recalls the worldview of the ancients, who drew no distinction among artistic inspiration, religious inspiration, and insanity: after all, in each case the person inspired hears voices in her head. The audience’s sympathy for Séraphine is thus tempered by the awareness that … this woman is nuts.

A domestic servant by day, Séraphine Louis began painting in secret, because, she said, her guardian angel told her to. Her work caught the eye of Wilhelm Uhde, a distinguished collector who was in part responsible for the early success of Pablo Picasso and other artists, including Henri “Le Douanier” Rousseau, another primitivist who came to painting from an unexpected vantage.* Played by Ulrich Tukur in the film, Uhde is quick to grasp Séraphine’s genius but slow to realize that … did I mention she’s nuts?

The fact that Uhde is making money by selling Séraphine’s paintings complicates matters in a way that the director, Martin Provost, reveals but does not analyze. Séraphine exploits Uhde, too, once he puts her on retainer and begins to pay all her bills: she goes on a shopping spree and runs up quite a tab. The relationship between artist and vendor, as seen here, isn’t merely symbiotic, it’s mutually parasitic. Most movies about artists play on the audience’s fantasies of being artists themselves; we watch Kirk Douglas and think, “Oh, I’m just like that — no one understands me, either!” But Séraphine doesn’t permit that kind of response.

Cannibals: Moreau and Tukur

Beyond the money, Uhde also derives significant gratification from encouraging the artistic bent of his cleaning lady, whom the rest of the town of Senlis considers a crank (because … she is), and whom her bourgeois employers discourage. “You’re wasting your time,” says one lady, early in the picture, and we look forward to seeing her comeuppance.

Gradually, the neighbors do take a kind of civic pride in their local artist; they dub her “Séraphine de Senlis,” which with its particule lends a certain nobility. Few have the guts to admit they don’t understand what she’s doing, with her intricate canvases of what appear to be flowers and fruit, patterned like the stained-glass windows Séraphine admires in church. One brave soul admits that she finds the images frightening, and Séraphine exclaims, “Me, too!”

The Great Depression unfortunately coincides with her success. Told that there’s a global economic crisis and that she needs to economize, she doesn’t understand; she believes that Uhde is trying to sweeten the news that other people don’t like her work. Soon she’s committed to an asylum, and again history slaps her: caring for the mentally ill wasn’t high on the priority list of the Nazis, and Séraphine died in 1942, at the height of the Occupation.

Moreau gives an astonishing performance, making Séraphine lovable enough that we understand Uhde’s affection for her, yet she doesn’t cheat the less pleasant, crazier aspects of her character’s personality. I was struck again by her animal intensity: if in Quand la mer monte she’s a cat, and in Louise–Michel she’s a lumbering bear, in Séraphine she’s a hen. As she waddles about, her eyes are constantly darting, her head tilting. She’s always alert, though seldom comprehending what she takes in.

Call of the wild, cry for help: Somebody get this boy to a therapist!

One is left to wonder whether Séraphine would have been able to create works of such genius and intensity if she’d received the care she needed. A similar question pestered me as I watched another movie this weekend, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. As inspiring as we may find Chris McCanless’ quest to commune with nature, he’s clearly possessed by a troubled mind, and whenever anyone (Hal Holbrook, Catherine Keener, Kristen Stewart**) tries to engage him in a healthier relationship with the rest of humanity, Chris bolts. Ultimately, it’s a very sad little story.

* Rousseau was a customs officer, which is what “le douanier” means: Americans may not realize that it’s not his birth name but something museums feel compelled to add because, you know, he’s not a real artist.

** I spent the weekend benefiting from the “Printemps du Cinéma,” a three-day promotion in which the Banque Paribas pumps sufficient funds into the system that all movie tickets are a mere 3 Euros 50. At those prices, one will go to see anything, and I saw
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, too; the next day, I went to Into the Wild and watched in the certain belief that Ms. Stewart was Kat Dennings, the titular Norah. They’re not the same actress. Ms. Dennings is the one to watch, so vibrant and dimensional that she seems to pop out from the screen.

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22 March 2009

Interview: Betty Aberlin

Unfortunately, my camera broke shortly before Betty and I met,
so there are no new pictures to post here.

In trying to explain to friends who didn’t grow up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood just what it means to get to know Betty Aberlin, leading lady of the show’s ensemble players, the best I can manage is this: it’s like meeting Kanga, from the Winnie-the-Pooh books. That will give you some sense of the significance.

Now let your imagination leap forward, and conjure a Kanga who in addition to her well-known nurturing qualities demonstrates fierce intelligence, sly humor, and a passionate interest in politics and art. That’s Betty Aberlin — the real one, not the Make-Believe one.

During my most recent trip to New York, Betty agreed to meet with me to talk about Madeline Kahn, whose biography I’m preparing. The two young actresses worked together in 1965, in a revue at Upstairs at the Downstairs, a Manhattan nightclub. Though their careers took them in different directions (several, actually), they remained friends for the rest of Madeline’s too-short life.

After that conversation, Betty Aberlin consented to be interviewed about Mister Rogers, for the purposes of this blog. As you’ll see from the transcript that follows, that subject led us to many other topics: gender, race, philosophy, and contemporary politics. What you won’t see from the transcript is that we parted ways with a gesture that is less typical of two arty, left-wing New Yorkers: as she said goodbye, Lady Aberlin said, “Ugga-mugga,” and rubbed her nose against mine, just as she used to do with Daniel Striped Tiger in the Land of Make-Believe.

WVM: From what you’ve been telling me today, [Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood] sounds like a terrific environment for you. Certainly you could go there feeling that you were doing something important. I thought you were. It’s sort of removed from the competitiveness of New York. Possibly even sheltered.

BKA: It just felt totally like serendipity. I didn’t begin to know, again, the implications of it. I just knew that the work was really worthy, and that as a musician, as a lyricist, as a child-development-audience-focused, kindly, secretly ministerial, not-so macho guy, [Fred Rogers] was modeling the possibility of kindliness.

[At first,] I thought that was just complete poppycock — “Come on, what is this ‘Neighborhood’? Say hello to the postman, and ‘Hi, Mr. So-and-So, how are you doing?’” I just thought, “Right. That’s a Good Housekeeping kind of thing, come on.” Because I came from New York, where if somebody says, “How are you doing,” you think, “What do they mean by that?” And then years later, I realized I was the one with the skewed reality. That I had been inculcated with a sense of mistrust and danger, because that’s what the city was, when I navigated it all by myself.

You had to keep your eyes open. I remember waiting for my sister at the Donnell Library, across from the Museum of Modern Art, because her class wasn’t over yet. I was in some section of the library, and a man cornered me in the stacks and started to feel me up. My response to danger was to start talking in a very friendly way, and I kind of backed my way out with a book in my hand and went to the librarian as calmly as I could, asked to take it out, at which time she explained that it was a reference book and I had to go back and put it where it was. So I calmly walked back to where the man was, and put the book away, and talking in a nice way, got to the door and ran like hell, picked up my sister.

So what I’m saying is, [my experience had been more] like “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” with the ghetto background and Eddie Murphy. I didn’t know what is this guy [Rogers] talking about? The two-parent family, and everything. So that was a productive freedom over the years.

Again, I had never met anybody who came from enormous wealth. Fred’s mother had stock in, I think, NBC, and that’s probably how he got the job as a floor manager for Amahl and the Night Visitors and Kate Smith. The first person that he worked with, Josie Carey, on the program, Children’s Corner, that was the prelude to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood where he was only behind the scenes, doing the puppets and playing the piano — which is why he wore sneakers, because he had to silently run behind the sets. That’s how the sneakers came about. To quickly put his hand in Daniel Tiger. That’s how the sneakers came to be iconic....they delineated the putting aside of the world shoes for the visit sneakers.

Rogers with Daniel Striped Tiger

That show was quite improvisational, and Josie was just brilliant. Then he went to Canada, and decided to come out in front of the camera, and Josie got dropped. The people that she had introduced him to — Don Brockett, Johnny Costa, Joe Negri — were retained. And off she went. I, not knowing any of this history, inherited the “Lady” character, and Fred began to write everything and did not welcome the very kind of improvisational work that they had done. Certain puppets were retained, and then we began to do the operas, which considering that I starred in all of them, I liked the very best. And also because they were whimsical, they were not straitjacketed by child-development concerns.

WVM: Growing up in Houston, I don’t know how we managed this, but we got about a year’s worth of Mister Rogers before you started, is my recollection. Because I had begun watching it, it was black-and-white. […] It was still “Misterrogers,” one word.

BKA: That would be early on.

WVM: And you were not on it then. It was a big deal, when you came on. All of us talked about it at lunchtime.

BKA: Uh-huh. The people that — David Newell, who plays Mr. McFeeley, and I, and one of his secretaries, Elaine Lynch, who [has just retired from] Family Communications — were the first regulars, I guess.

WVM: Did you enjoy the work? You talk about it as being somewhat constrained.

BKA: Sesame Street began to adopt the quick cuts of the ad biz, the premise being that — and their focus audience was older, ours was two- to four-year-old children, theirs was older — they had way more money and many more writers. The idea being, “A child has no ability to sustain ideas. They’re going to be distracted very easily. So [on Sesame Street] we’re going to keep cutting, keeping it interesting, and keeping their parents interested.” I maintain that if Sesame Street had had to pay for the free advertising they put out on public television, for all the puppets, all their toys, they would owe the American people quite a hefty sum.

As Sesame began to depend on snappy stuff that was entertaining, we by contrast, as if to emphasize the focus of our work, having more to do with self-acceptance, neighborliness — Sesame was “one-two-three,” and we were “You don’t have to know everything when you go to school.” [Mister Rogers] began to have a more and more compensatory focus on child development and values. The shows began to have themes. The operas were Fred at his whimsical best. The operas still focused on the beautiful themes that were pertinent to children, but Fred was allowed to be more expressive. For some reason or another, he said that PBS was not so fond of them, but I thought they were it. I loved them.

WVM: Just as a learning tool, to take children step-by-step.

BKA: And to bring them into the world of higher music. And to put together all over the week. You know, [baritone John] Reardon arrives on Monday, the King commissions an opera, people say, “I want to do this, I want to do this,” and then it all comes together. But the music is gorgeous in it. We did 13 of them, and they became more and more complex, musically and spiritually.

Below, clips from Pineapples and Tomatoes, one of the earlier and more whimsical operatic efforts.

Betty talked about the creative stimulus that Fred Rogers found from working with people from backgrounds different from his own.

BKA: And then you had Johnny Costa [the show’s music director and off-camera jazz pianist and arranger], who was the opposite. He was like pepper and Fred was salt. You know, Johnny Costa from this ethnic, fabulous Italian, and Fred from this extremely protected, WASP, upright [background]. [There was] productive friction — whether it be me saying, “Why don’t we do a program about death?” “No, no.” But eventually that came to be. Because children do, whether it’s a goldfish (which is what he finally did) or divorce, [have to cope with serious real-life issues]. So I think that in some ways, because of the difference in our backgrounds, I was bringing [perspectives that come from growing up in] the broken home. I don’t mean, “I-I-I,” I just mean that that was a part of the productive friction.

I wasn’t doing the show to advance my career, because it only occurred to me later that I was going to be typecast and I would be stuck with Lady Aberlin, in a way, and it might be hard to get out of that. I was caught up in the — well, I guess you’d say in the mission. And because I wasn’t just an actor, I also contributed a number of ideas.

WVM: It is a very personal statement, as a show. So it’s interesting to hear how Rogers would to some extent make that a collaboration. Obviously, he couldn’t do it all by himself.

BKA: Well, I think he would have if he could have. But he couldn’t, so he had to use us. I mean, I was his feminine side. The puppets represented different stages in child development, Daniel being the youngest. I forget all what they were. “The cobbler’s children go barefoot,” and because my mother had studied child development, I didn’t want anything to do with it. I wanted to remain a child. I did not want to analyze. A lot of the people who joined him, he suggested that they get whatever, a Ph.D. in Education, but it was the last thing that I wanted to do. I did not want to be completely absorbed into this world, and I had never been that kind of a helpmate to anyone. So things basically changed from being extremely collaborative to being more and more doctrinaire, more and more theme-oriented, and ultimately for me, less and less fun, while still being worthy in all kinds of ways. Everything from the marvelous visits to the factories and the celebrities.

Again, my sort of brainwashing meant that what I was against would have given anybody a clue to what I really wanted and was unaware of myself. I didn’t think it was a good idea to have celebrities on, the way Sesame Street did. I wanted to have ordinary people lauded for their lives. I thought that what we were modeling was not a celebrity culture, but the opposite.

WVM: Even John Reardon was not all that famous in opera. I still find people who haven’t heard of him. A great artist, but not well-known.

BKA: Yeah. And also, then, Van Cliburn and Fred went to school together, so did Tony Perkins and Fred. The whole time with Fred — I mean, Fred had to represent what [he was]. He was always saying [in public] that we [the Neighbors] were actors, which was difficult for us, because our own names were attached to the very characters we were trying to make real, as though we were lying in our representations, as though acting is falsehood beside truth itself, instead of being revelatory of truth itself. But he would go on to say that he himself was not acting, that what you see is what you get. Well, if you consider that the phrase “What you see is what you get” was spoken by Flip Wilson in drag as Geraldine, you have an idea of what Fred was up against in his presentation as the opposite of macho. Replete with some sort of Internet scam, in which something went round saying that he was really a Navy SEAL. No, he wasn’t a Navy SEAL. Whereas Johnny Costa, our pianist, did serve in the military — that was part of their phenomenal interplay. I mean, if you want the official version of the show, you really need to talk to David Newell.

WVM: I should actually some day. Obviously it has been a huge influence on me, and it’s a subject that interests me. You were saying that [Rogers] could be very funny, and that —

BKA: He had a wonderful sense of humor.

WVM: Can you think of examples of that?

BKA: Oh, gee, I wish I could. I’m sure other people could tell you chapter and verse. In some of the earlier operas, there were some wicked puns, that later on, the icon would not have engaged in. I’m trying to think of them. There was the pineapple can opera.

WVM: Which you sent me the link to.

BKA: I think I commented on it in the link, too. There was some kind of lyric that was pretty double-entendre.

WVM: That clip reminded me of an aspect of the personality of X the Owl that I had forgotten, which is he is a Benjamin Franklin fanatic.

BKA: Oh, yes!

WVM: Which is hilarious. But also — we know people who [are fanatics]. I don’t dress up like Beverly Sills, but I love Beverly Sills.

BKA: Oh, yeah. And his whole Owl Correspondence School, the idea of continuing education.

Betty talked a bit about some of the more serious aspects of the characters in the Land of Make-Believe.

BKA: Henrietta Pussycat was originally a black pussycat. The puppet was black. I sang a song called, “You are pretty,/ You are black,/ You are beautifully dressed,/ Finely curled,/ Perfectly you are pretty,/ Elegant, you are black.”* She was always meant to be — as Mayor Maggie, Princess Zelda, Ella Jenkins — Mabel Mercer was on and sang two beautiful songs — was the gorgeous elegance of the black race, or what have you. Although Chuck and Maggie, who were each other’s own — not only in Pittsburgh of that time, and maybe for their own reasons never actually married, but on the show they were an unstated couple. At a time when — think about the Sixties — a show that was being beamed into the South was not going to stand that. Maggie, very early on as Mayor Maggie, with Chuck as her Associate Mayor, rather than the other way around: [they] were modeling the reality that has finally come to be real. And Obama, he does not look Jim Brown, or O.J. Simpson. He is not a guy so manly that white American men are threatened. He is so much more like Fred Rogers, that his extremely powerful wife has to focus on being the mom and the cookies and the style. And sure, America based on Hillary Clinton’s previous example — [approves] that [Michelle Obama] is not going to return to work, she’s a mom.

In that way, too, Fred was a genius. There is a braid of music, theology and child development. And he had that workaholism of the “To whom much is given, much will be required.” As a child, he had been overweight, so he kept his weight at all times at 143, which stood for “I Love You,” the number of letters in each word. You would see him at lunch with his one little yogurt. So the rigidity and discipline of that kind of imposition upon himself, and swimming so many laps a day, and praying so many hours a morning: an incredible discipline. And again, continually modeling that from Saint-Exupéry, “That which is essential is invisible to the eyes.”

WVM: “We see only with the heart.”

BKA: So for Fred to dare to go in front of the cameras, to be answering — or those of us who worked for him answering all through the years — that question. To have the wife, the children and the grandchildren continually in the forefront. Fred was an anomaly on television. And whether he could have done anything, or would have been suited to do anything else, he would have been relegated just because of his kind of androgyny. Instead, he’s going swimming with a young man in a pool — he’s continually being himself, himself, himself, as it is, and saying, “There’s more to all of us than meets the eye. There’s more to you than your infirmity.”

WVM: You find in that nobility. You come on the show, and you’re not just Betty, you’re Lady Aberlin. There’s this recognition of nobility in everyone.

BKA: I know, and I’m the last person in the world! I mean, I don’t even understand — I don’t know what a duchess is. In fact, I think he recognized my working class very much, because in several operas, you’d just see me in uniform. I’m the park ranger, or I’m the trolley conductor. So that was very strange, being the Lady and being deferential to a king. Hello! That went against my [background of resistance to male authority]. I was made into a feminist by the absent father, and all that. That was Amish plus — not a very realistic entrance into the world. I was afraid, in feminist years, that I was representing a too-deferential model of womanhood — you know, it was always, “Correct as usual, King Friday.” I didn’t know exactly what I was participating in. You know, was he a Mason?

WVM: Well, but some of the other [characters] were saying, “Correct as always,” and you would say, “Correct as usual.”

BKA: “Correct as usual.” I didn’t notice that. But just that Obama — there’s like way more to him than meets the eye. He also is the broken-home child.

WVM: Yeah! Interesting.

BKA: I think I identified with him on that basis from the giddy-up. So I thought, “There’s another one. Always seeking to reconcile opposing factions.”

After a brief sidetrack to discuss President Obama’s age, I asked whether Fred Rogers was easy to work with.

BKA: He was a stickler. […] X once gave me a compliment, and as Betty, I kind of went, “Aw shucks.” It was “Stop tape!” “Why?” “Because if a child gives you a compliment, you receive the compliment.” So the thing was annotated to a fare-thee-well. Things happened left to right on the screen, because a child learns to read with his eyes being trained left to right. There were a thousand things.

WVM: The Trolley goes left to right! Good grief, I hadn’t even thought about that.

BKA: It’s very hard actually to memorize what we call Freddish — you know, English, Spanish, Freddish. They’re simple, declarative sentences. There’s no connective tissue, and you’re dealing with a puppet for whom you have to imagine a reaction. It’s not a puppet like the Sesame Street puppets, where the eyes roll and the mouths flap, or anything like this.

Furthermore, it was so low-budget, in a way, it was as close to live TV as you’ve got. There was no rehearsal time, so you basically learned your lines and then sometimes you had to do something tricky with a puppet or a prop. At which time you got the prop and puppet, and the lines went out of your head. Or you got the lines and you covered a puppet. I mean, we did our own hair, our own makeup, we miked ourselves, we dressed in a toilet — a very nice toilet, but still, the toilet.

WVM: Wow! I thought it was at least a studio.

BKA: There was a studio, yeah. But it was not luxe. And so it was the additional pressure of just getting your hair and makeup camera-worthy, while making sure that your mike was off in the bathroom. You know, there was a very homemade quality about it, and sometimes if you fluffed a line, and the puppet did well, they’d pick the take with the puppet. That’s the case.

WVM: The puppet had connections, it must be said!

BKA: Oh, yes!

WVM: There’s a kind of emotional transparency that you had to summon up in every line, and from my limited experience in acting, I know that can’t have been easy every day.

BKA: I must say, I loved all of the puppets. Daniel was my surrogate child, certainly. I was permitted — you know, Fred was not in any way touchy-feely. I think he did not like it. In the early days, I felt way more freedom to touch the puppets. Even to say, “Ugga-mugga, Daniel Tiger,” was at first an idea that was rejected. I’m not sure why. Maybe too frivolous, I don’t know. But there was real love there.

WVM: I think for us who grew up watching you, we feel relationships with the puppets. We feel about them as if they were people, characters. We respond to them as that. Did you find that as an actor? You’re telling me yes, I think.

BKA: Oh, sure!

WVM: Were there times you just wanted to strangle King Friday?

BKA: Well, I think you can see that in my face, half the time! You know, if I didn’t roll my eyes — he was such a delightful character, wielding his power. You know, one of the things we asked Fred for, too, or I did, was, “Don’t you ever get angry, Fred? Human beings get angry, children get angry, parents get angry. Can we — are you going to lose control sometime?” And there was a segment toward the end, in which I’m showing the King something, and he throws it to the ground and breaks it. I think that was the first time the King ever apologized to Lady Aberlin. There was just fabulous —

WVM: Wow! So much of the show is about anger management, so that sort of makes one wonder —

BKA: I don’t know that it’s so much of the show, but it’s certainly modeling the gentlest, kindest ways to interact.

WVM: I’ve been talking about him as a kind of masculine role model. He sort of prepared the ground in many ways for the character that Alan Alda wound up playing on M*A*S*H, and everybody said, “Oh, this is the generation of the Alan Alda male.” I grew up with this, I had to be the Alan Alda guy when I went into the world. But Alan Alda on M*A*S*H, you saw him kiss a girl. So there was no question asked about what he was.

BKA: He’s a straight guy. He was a gentle, straight guy.

WVM: Right. And that was okay, and people didn’t make fun of him the way they did of Fred Rogers, but what was he going to do? I don’t know, it’s strange. But since Alan Alda, we haven’t really had that kind of low-key, gentle male figure — until Obama.

Sensitive Guy, Also Great with Kids

BKA: Well, this is a whole ‘nother series. I mean, not counting the black exploitation films, if you look overall at the black actors who are permitted to make it on camera, the comedians — Richard Pryor, Chris Rock — that’s like — it’s probably a chicken or the egg question. Do you become a genius at comedy because you don’t look like a football player? Or is white America so terrified of male beauty or sexual prowess that it prefers to have the — I mean, Bill Cosby was certainly a handsome guy. He was nobody’s sidekick in — what was that show?

WVM: I Spy, with Robert Culp.

BKA: Right. But there are a lot of shows in which the white guy’s quote “masculinity” is enhanced by the somewhat nerdy affect [of a black sidekick]. I wish that we could flip the switch now. I once had an idea for a film in which all the children being wheeled in perambulators would be being wheeled by perfectly groomed white nannies, and the whole world would be in the complete reverse. You know, I wish that Obama’s ascendancy would be marked by an immediate — have you ever heard of the Hundredth Monkey Idea?

The Hundredth Monkey Idea was used by those who were against nuclear war. The argument is that a certain species of monkey grows up on a Japanese island, and all of them eat yams, and they eat them sandy. By accident a teenage monkey drops his yam in the river, and it gets washed. He discovers that it tastes better washed, so he teaches his whole generation to wash their yams. And they teach their parents to wash their yams. There’s one holdout, an old monkey or something. And when that one holdout, the hundredth monkey, washes his yam, spontaneously all over the world, that particular species of monkey begins to wash yams before eating. It’s like an evolutionary kick-up. So I’d like to think that, in the way that races relate to each other, because of this incredible day in history and so forth, that the whole power structure would be turned inside-out, and that a kind of innate deference would occur, not just as reparations.

I knew as a child that blacks were the chosen people. I knew it. I had frizzy hair and I was teased, and above all else, I was teased that not only my father was absent but he was black. And so I developed this tremendous kinship. I had to learn that, no, I’m not black. I can’t just join because they’re “it.” Chosen to bear the burden of racism.

WVM: I went through the same thing with being Jewish, actually. People didn’t tell me I looked Jewish, but —

BKA: You were like an honorary —

WVM: Very much honorary.

BKA: I think probably the way things go, you become what you admire a little bit. Whether they invite you in or not, you can’t help but turn toward the light, whatever in the other culture is missing from the one in which you are born, you go to it, like phototropism or something.

WVM: You’re doing art and poetry these days, you act in Kevin Smith movies: what else should we know about what you do these days?

BKA: “We” should know whether there’s any point in spending the money for my next headshots, whether I’ll ever work again. Do put in a good word with Mel [Brooks].

WVM: Honestly, if I were a producer, you would work constantly. I have a really hard time thinking of things that I can’t imagine your doing. Especially now that I know you’re not a high-school girl in Pittsburgh.

BKA: That is probably my dilemma, as the tightrope between the Renaissance and dilettante, that I always feel that I am not able to focus on one thing. And of course at sixtysomething, the known actresses who have been on a powerful career arc in their lives are going to get even the small parts that are available. That’s just the reality. I started to say that when I came up, theater was it, and movies were [grimaces]. There was a — stupid, possibly — but there was a real prejudice against movies, which I wholeheartedly adopted. I couldn’t understand why Meryl Streep was going into the movies. You know, when she could be — and then later I sort of understood. “Oh, I see, you do it once, it’s over. You don’t have to do it every night, and you’re there for posterity.”

Yet what strikes me is that Betty Aberlin is there for posterity. Though Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is no longer as widely distributed, and though not every aspect of Fred Rogers’ approach chimed with Betty’s philosophy, her work continues to reach television audiences. More importantly, the work she did decades ago took root in the hearts of the children who watched her then, who are grownups now. Even a distant memory of Lady Aberlin’s patience and concern may echo now, not in applause but in a kind word to a neighbor — or a stranger. That legacy belongs not only to Fred Rogers, but also to Betty Aberlin. Always.

*Betty points out that, at the time, Americans were shifting away from use of the word “Negro” in favor of “black,” a term soon to be displaced by “African-American.” The Neighborhood embraced a number of other African-Americans, including François Clemmons, Keith Davis, Vic Miles and Lynn Swann.

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18 March 2009

Prodigio Domingo

The Metropolitan Opera on Sunday night threw a little party to mark two anniversaries: the company is 125 years old, and for the past 40 of those years, Plácido Domingo has been on its roster. He is now 68 years old, long past retirement age for most tenors, and yet he is busier than ever: continuing to sing and to conduct around the world while also directing two major opera companies in the U.S. and a vocal competition. Even other superstars (such as the conductors Valery Gergiev and James Levine) can’t match his pace; most don’t even try.

He’s more than a phenomenon, he is history in the making, and we’re witnessing it. Centuries from now, people will still be talking about Plácido Domingo. It’s strange to think that people I know have worked with him, eaten dinner with him, gone for a walk with him: he’s flesh and blood, just a guy, a strikingly dull interview, and yet he’s one of the most remarkable artists — ever.

With Teresa Stratas in Franco Zeffirelli’s film of La Traviata.

I’ve heard Domingo sing many times at the Met, and I’ve heard him conduct a few times, too. My early encounters with his baton, in standard-rep operas, didn’t impress me much: he didn’t let the music breathe, though he was considerate of the singers: he didn’t put a personal stamp on the music, as he would have done with any work he sang. He was no Karajan. Conducting seemed then like a vanity project for him, and an endeavor in which opera houses indulged him primarily because they hoped to sign him to sing again (or because he was the boss).

I was wrong to underestimate his drive, and the last time I heard him conduct (in Paris, at the world premiere of Howard Shore’s opera, The Fly, in 2008), it was clear to me that Domingo had been studying and working hard to improve himself. I don’t think anyone could have conducted the piece better — and that’s a compliment. Howard Shore’s music got a fair hearing — and that’s an achievement.

Yet I don’t expect that it’s as a conductor that Domingo will be remembered. Over his long career, he’s sung something on the order of 135 roles, and he’s about to add Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra to that tally. That’s a baritone part: Domingo was trained to sing in that Fach, and the darker colors of his voice carried over into his singing when he became a tenor, lending him a poetic melancholy in parts such as Don Carlo and Otello.

I heard him sing a bit of the latter role at another gala, when the Met celebrated his sixtieth birthday. Everyone marveled that a man his age could still muster the burnished golden tones, the passion and the sorrow of the final act of Verdi’s tragedy. We all wondered how much longer he’d be able to keep going, and shortly thereafter, he retired the complete role from his repertoire. But on Sunday night, he sang the final scene again. I wish to hell I’d been there.

Baseball metaphors get overused in opera (yes, most American opera buffs are baseball fans), but Domingo invites them. He’s an old slugger who still hits ’em out of the park, and he leaves the rookies eating his dust.

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15 March 2009

Welcome to the Dollhouses

From the Thorne Rooms, Art Institute of Chicago
Photgraph by Joyce DiDonato©

My recent entry on the subject of the Barbie doll may give a false impression to those readers who don’t know me.* I am not immune to the charm of dolls, nor to the siren temptation of collecting completely useless objects.

Inspired by my affection for Mary Norton’s Borrowers books, at an early age I translated my playtime to handicrafts — art projects, if you will — by constructing figurines and miniature furniture to represent characters from the books and their home. In most regards, I was scrupulously faithful to Norton’s prescriptions: matchboxes were stacked atop one another and glued together to create a functional chest of drawers, for example, and postage stamps became framed prints, suitable for hanging.

Pod Clock greets a Human Bean.
Illustration by Beth & Joe Krush

I veered from the novel in one important detail. Whereas Norton’s Borrowers lived under the floorboards, I knew I’d catch hell from my parents if I tore up the house: my little people lived in an old suitcase. But just as the Borrowers in the novel aspire to bourgeois comforts and begin to acquire dollhouse furniture (pilfered for them by a Human Bean who is — and this is significant — a little boy), so I began to fashion items that resembled antique furniture. Some of these are damned impressive, and moreover they are all dead butch. This wasn’t playing with dolls! This was cabinetmaking on a 1/12 scale! Nothing sissified about it.

Mrs. Thorne’s interpretation of Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage.
From the Art Institute of Chicago

Unfortunately, I’m not able to show you pictures of what became an elaborate, fully furnished, multi-room dwelling populated by dozens of characters (including not only Borrowers but opera singers, the casts of Upstairs, Downstairs and Star Trek, historical personages, other fictional characters, and little people of my own, obviously warped imagination). I displayed the collection in a bookcase, because I never quite managed to construct a suitable house. I learned a number of useful skills, including sewing. (My stitching isn’t very pretty, but then any seam looks bigger and clumsier on a two-inch sleeve.) When my parents moved to another house, the collection was boxed up, and it remains stored away at their home in Texas.

The library of Colleen Moore’s Castle
Chicago Museum of Science and Industry

I share with you here a few pictures of other people’s miniatures: Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle (at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry) and Mrs. James Ward Thorne’s period rooms (at the Art Institute of Chicago). If you can imagine a blend of the Moore and Thorne approaches to miniatures, you’ll have a clear picture of the style to which I aspired. My first trip to Chicago, in the spring of 1975, was therefore something of a hadj.

My other collection required less craft and more cunning, if you will, since I didn’t make the objects in question but pursued them relentlessly in shops throughout Europe and America, and on two trips to Japan. They’re little plastic figurines, mostly characters from cartoons and comic books, but also from Star Trek (again) and live-action movies (the Marx Brothers meet Darth Vader, the Cowardly Lion meets Marilyn Monroe). There are a few strictly observed rules to the collection: I have to like the book or show from which the character derives, and the figurine must be useless, inarticulated, stationary — that is, not a jointed action figure. The fad for such figurines was at its height in the early 1990s, and I built my collection compulsively, arriving at a tally of 2,016 characters. (And that’s characters, not figurines: although I have several Mickey Mouses, for example, he counts only once.)

It’s a small world after all.

The fad seems to have passed, just as I exhausted the characters in which I was interested. I could have branched out into manga characters — but what’s the point? Already my collection is so large that, when displayed, it creeps out visitors to my home; and in storage it occupies a great many boxes. And so my collection has held fairly steady, except when a new Pixar movie is released.**

Let it be freely admitted and clearly understood, then, that though I have cast stones at Barbie, I am not without sin.

*And there seem to be several of you. Who are you people? That’s not a rhetorical question — write and tell me, please.

**May I preemptively observe that it’s kind of you but futile to offer me a figurine for the collection, because it’s almost certain that any character you can find will be represented already.

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14 March 2009

Sleeping with the Enemy?

Since I met Jon Stewart once, fleetingly, in a hallway at the CBS Broadcast Center in the mid-1990s, he’s fair game for one of my “Portraits” essays in this space. What I learned about him at that time wasn’t much, though — he’s short, he’s nervous, he’s handsome — and so I keep putting off any longer meditation on the Daily Show host. His interview Thursday night with the CNBC personality Jim Cramer, however, provokes comment now, and not only because everyone else in the American-speaking universe seems to be weighing in on the encounter. In reading some of other people’s commentary, I keep missing something important.

Though Stewart did an admirable job of assembling and presenting his arguments, channeling populist rage, and striving to avoid personalizing his remarks (to make it clear that Cramer wasn’t his only target), he danced around the essential point he had to make: namely, that shows like Cramer’s present themselves as news programs, and are carried on what present themselves as news networks, yet they fail to engage in the journalistic fundamentals of reporting, follow-up questioning, and investigation. Shows like Cramer’s (and the late Crossfire, with Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala) arouse Stewart’s ire because they don’t admit — as Stewart does of his own program — that they’re fake news. Such dishonesty, Stewart says, is “hurting this country.”

In his interview with Cramer, Stewart hammered home on the uneasy relationship between journalist and source: if a reporter challenges the source, there’s a very good chance the source will never grant the reporter another interview, and favor some more pliant reporter instead. All journalism is competitive, and the prospect of losing a scoop to another news outlet is daunting to anybody. The greater danger, however, is to accept a source’s statements without question. Stewart in recent days has provided a score of damning examples of CNBC’s failures in this regard; Cramer portrayed himself as a victim of lies and spin, which he doubtless was. The superior alternative — which Stewart only vaguely articulated — is never to treat any statement as more than part of the story.

Unfortunately, in the current environment of 24-hour news cycles and reduced staffing in both print and electronic journalism, following up on a source’s statements is more difficult. Investigative journalism requires long hours, during which the reporter seldom files other stories: if your boss is standing over your desk, wondering why you’re not performing up to your quota, and he’s got a short list of potential layoffs in one hand, you’re going to be disinclined to take extra time. And, as Stewart repeatedly pointed out, reporters under pressure are less likely to ask follow-up questions, more likely to throw softballs.

Most of the singers I write about, including Susan Graham (whom I heard Thursday night), don’t need my help to look good.
They do that just by showing up.

I’ve thrown more than a few softballs in my own time, and I’ve felt uncomfortable about the chumminess of relationships with the people I’ve covered, or helped to cover. At Opera News, I am most certainly promoting the people I interview and the work they do: it’s part of the magazine’s mission to stimulate interest in opera. A protocol or etiquette sets in, and I have not (for example) checked the financial statements of Houston Grand Opera when writing a profile on its then-director, David Gockley, and I took at face value his remarks about his future with the company. A few months later, he resigned from HGO and took the directorship of San Francisco Opera. He may not have been fully candid with me, though I didn’t take that personally. It’s even possible that he didn’t know at the time that he would be making his departure.

The ethical question remained: had I disserved the magazine’s readers? Probably so. I should have dug deeper, asked around, to confirm his intention to stay in Houston. Did my lapse make much difference? Probably not. The overriding concern in such a story is the art form, not the activities of its proponents, and the magazine and I share a vested interest in seeing more people interested in opera, listening to music, and attending performances — because strength lies in numbers. If readers aren’t turned on to opera, they don’t go, and eventually, we won’t go, either, because no one will present operas anymore. Opera News is not least a recruitment tool, written propaganda in an ongoing campaign for musical hearts and minds.

Unfortunately, I’ve interviewed a few singers who didn’t quite grasp that I’m not trying to make them look bad. (On the contrary! It helps that I’ve never covered anyone whom I didn’t believe to be worth hearing, and the vast majority are good actors, too.) Maybe some of these singers have been burned by critics and reporters in Europe, where cultural journalism is more adversarial. Whatever the reason, though, they have treated me warily, as if I were a crew from 60 Minutes preparing a story on tainted food and convinced that they’ve got something to hide.

Political, consumer, and financial reporting are different, because money and lives are at stake. Nothing should be taken at face value, and we’ve seen the results when reporters forget that: the build-up to the Iraq war and the financial crisis are only the most obvious examples. Sweet-talking a source is risky but necessary business, and both the reporter and the reportee must remain aware that, no matter how friendly an interview may seem at the time, it may be followed by less cordial behavior. The Congressman with quotable remarks and unerring leads may tomorrow denounce the press. The reporter who gets your name in the paper as a crusader one day may tomorrow reveal that you’re a crook.

My experience in political journalism was always among the biggest players (and I was at something of a remove, at the side of the reporter, never asking the questions myself), who surely understood the rules of the game. A certain degree of buttering-up went on, on both sides. The complicity was mutually beneficial. The politician realizes that publicity will mean that his constituents will know of the work he’s doing on their behalf, and thus be more likely to return him to office or to propel him to a higher one. The reporter gets information, which translates immediately into more air-time or column inches, and perhaps to a big scoop or promotion in the longer term.

Yet some of the dewdrops exchanged smelled foul, to my nostrils, and carried the whiff of those orgies of incest and insincerity that Stephen Colbert exposed at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, a few years ago. Why do we engage in this ethically suspect behavior? Whom are we trying to please? Whom are we fooling? Are we supposed to be fooling anybody? In whose interest, really, are we working?

That was a question Stewart raised, and it resonated for me even as it seemed to abash Mr. Cramer.* As I say, I wish Stewart had gone a bit further in this line, articulating more clearly the approach he favors and why it’s at such variance from CNBC’s approach. Surely even the big corporate media outlets are worried by the potential consequences of current economic trends; surely they’d find useful a more cogent reminder that adherence to fundamentals leads to integrity leads to public trust — which leads to staying in business.

The interview and the buildup to it generated a great deal of comment — enough that I made a point of finding the interview on-line and of reading the coverage, both by professionals and by amateurs. Most of the comment has focused on the “sorry state of the times, when a comedian is a better journalist than a journalist”; I think that falls short of grasping the point, not least since Stewart doesn’t play by the rules (and admits it). Yet it’s undeniable that Jon Stewart practices one fundamental brilliantly: he listens to the people he interviews, and adapts his line of questioning to the nature of their responses, even when he’s fawning over them. He’s quick-witted and usually well-informed (he actually reads a book before speaking with its author). That doesn’t make him a Murrow for our times. But he’s gotten more Americans talking about journalistic ethics, over the past week, than anyone else has in years.

*Somebody advised Cramer awfully well, by the way: he displayed personal courage and integrity just by showing up, took his licks, promised to do better, and didn’t make a fuss. It was a remarkably self-controlled presentation, particularly from a man whose usual on-air persona is that of a shrieking pinball machine. His model seemed to be that of Paul Begala, rather than Tucker Carlson, using Stewart’s Crossfire confrontation as a template, and maybe he’ll make some sincere effort to reform himself, as Begala did.

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09 March 2009

Bringing Up Barbie

Barbie, the 11 ½-inch “teenage fashion doll” from Mattel, turns 50 this week. She was already firmly entrenched in the American psyche by the time I was a kid, and the lessons she taught had taken hold already. Those lessons are either crass consumerism or feminist empowerment, depending on whom you ask. But don’t ask me. I wasn’t allowed to play with Barbies, when I visited girl friends.

From the little I saw of Barbie, she didn’t interest me much. Her characterless moue held no appeal. (Remember, I was about to become an opera fan. Stand a Barbie next to Maria Callas. There’s no contest.)

Moreover, Barbie was useless. In order to play with her, one had to hold her, much the way one holds a drumstick: she couldn’t stand alone. Her feet are too tiny to support her, and they’re pointed, besides, so that she can wear those tiny plastic high heels — that invariably slipped off and got lost. Thus I suspect that, as a feminist role model, she functions pretty poorly, never mind that she once ran for President. I know from personal experience, however, that when held by her feet, Barbie could be wielded as a club, and the blows she dealt could smart.

What Barbie was principally good for, then, was accessorizing. One could easily spend a small fortune on her outfits, her Dream House, her camper, her convertible car, her many little friends. Though anxieties over my gender-identification (and what the neighbors might have to say about it) probably compelled my mother’s no-Barbie rule, her inclination to thrift surely played a role, as well: we didn’t buy brand-name soap or canned goods, so why would we set ourselves up to buy brand-name doll furniture and clothing?

The emphasis on Barbie’s wardrobe did mean that millions of Americans* spent a lot of time undressing her, growing accustomed to her unlikely proportions and her strangely neutered curves, that mix of prurience and prudery that is a naked Barbie. Though I was never the paradigm for the narrator of A.M. Homes’ wonderful short story, “A Real Doll,” I did get near enough to Barbie’s nudity to feel a combination of excitement and pity for her. I had nothing but pity for poor Ken, with his puny pubic bump and his flamboyant wardrobe. Granted, even G.I. Joe was only slightly more virile, or at least hirsute, but Ken was a goddam eunuch, before I understood what eunuchs were and why I was glad I wasn’t one. It’s become chic to disparage Barbie for the “unreasonable body expectations” she inspires in little girls, but what’s Ken teaching boys (or girls) to expect? Yikes.

Pity didn’t prevent me from perverting an art project, when I was an adult. I took a Ken doll and dressed him in the purple-satin gown designed for the Wicked Queen from Disney’s Snow White, then available in toy stores everywhere. The fit was perfect, and the newly outfitted doll was a present to Marceline Hugot, a classmate from Brown, when she went off to film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, in which her co-stars (Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo, and Wesley Snipes) played drag queens. Marceline told me that Transvestite Ken was popular in the trailer, between takes.

That’s the extent of my connection to the Barbie phenomenon, and it’s strange to feel so removed from something so universal. I don’t regret not growing up with Barbie, and I have no intention of becoming a Waylon Smithers–type adult collector. Yet I’ll always wonder whether the old song is true, and life in a Barbie World really is fantastic, because it’s plastic.

*French people, too. There was a report on the news on Sunday. Who'd have thought?

All photographs from the Mattel website.

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08 March 2009

The American Way of Illness

Though President Obama has refused to seek to make health care in the United States universally available — a bone of contention in his campaign against Hillary Clinton last year — he has vowed to bring it closer to universality. As one whose health insurance (American) is flimsy at best, I like the idea of affordable, available health care. I’m baffled by those Americans who treat health as a kind of commodity, upon which prices can be put, and which should be bought and sold like pork bellies in a free market. I’ve never quite understood why a doctor who charges more is automatically accepted as better qualified, or why a drug that costs more is more effective. “This is a capitalist country,” my cousin told me tartly, when I asked why she opposed a health-care reform measure under discussion a few years ago. She’s not alone in her revulsion at the thought of “socialized medicine,” and there are powerful lobbyists working hard to reinforce the notion that any change in the system will be exactly that, and that “socialized medicine” is not merely a bad thing but the worst construct devised by the mind of man.

Mr. Obama has his work cut out for him, and I daresay it’s his awareness of this mindset that restrains his ambitions to change the health-care system in America. His opening bid is more modest than the one Candidate Hillary proposed, because he knows he’ll be negotiating with some very tough characters. They smashed Mrs. Clinton’s plans, 15 years ago, with the result that nothing was changed, and Americans continue to pay more for less care, and the care we do get is less effective: our infant-mortality rate, for example, compares with that of Second- and Third-World countries. And there are plenty of insurance and pharmaceutical executives, plenty of doctors’ associations, and whole armies of lobbyists eager to keep things this way, and to spend heavily to persuade Congress to agree with them.

Yet these aren’t the biggest opponents that the President and any reformer must face down. The two real culprits are older, more deeply entrenched, and impossible to dissuade: the Pilgrim and the Cowboy. Both in what they believed and in what we believe about them, the Pilgrim and the Cowboy are powerful influences on American thought about health care — though I’m not sure we realize that.

You’re in good hands with the Almighty:
A different kind of insurance policy?

Since the days of our Pilgrim Fathers, Americans have believed that illness is a sign of personal weakness, even one of God’s disfavor. Why on earth would we as a nation pick up the tab for the medical care of a sinner? Never mind that this attitude is analogous to believing that illness is caused by Evil Spirits: it’s our attitude, and we’re slow to relinquish it. Look at an overweight person and try telling yourself that he isn’t responsible for his fat, try convincing yourself that obesity isn’t a symptom of lack of restraint, try not to mock him when he says, “It’s a glandular condition.” Just try it. You can’t do it, can you? The Pilgrim within you won’t permit it. And so you blame the patient for his illness.

(This attitude was rampant during the early years of the AIDS crisis, of course. If the patient had possessed sufficient rectitude to refrain from drug abuse or ungodly homosexual activity, he wouldn’t be in this jam, would he? And so we let thousands die.)

He cast a long shadow.

What the Cowboy actually believed is almost irrelevant: because of Hollywood movies about him, we believe that he rode tall in the saddle, even when he was sick or wounded. He was so manly that he wouldn’t reveal his pain. And so Americans associate illness not merely with moral weakness, but with physical weakness. We feel contempt for the patient. A kind of Social Darwinism sets in: “survival of the weakest” is not a winning slogan.

I have no idea how to change these attitudes, but I recognize their existence — something that few people I speak with ever do. Living in a country where preventive care is the norm, I see that it’s also more efficient: curing an illness is more expensive than preventing one. Americans don’t seem to grasp that concept. The French actually talk to their doctors — and to their pharmacists. Americans go to the pharmacy and buy over-the-counter remedies in secrecy and perhaps shame: we mustn’t let anyone know we were weak enough to catch a cold, so we buy Contac and scurry to the checkout quickly, before anyone sees us. The French engage in long discussions with the pharmacist (“Is this remedy better than that one?” “This is how you use this, and remember to be careful if you’ve got condition X, Y, or Z”); in many cases, customers arrive at the pharmacy with a prescription for a specific remedy, because they’ve already been to the doctor, whom they paid the flat rate of 21 Euros for an office visit, because they’re insured, because everybody’s insured. I had a hard time believing the amount of personal attention the French get at every step of their health care, while Americans are left pretty much to their own devices. From conversations, I gather the French are far happier with their health care than Americans are with theirs.

Pharmacien français: à votre écoute

Americans may be a long time understanding that “socialized medicine” doesn’t have to mean Orwellian bureaucracy or Sovietic privations, that while no system is perfect, there are degrees of awfulness: the French system seems pretty good, the American pretty awful.

But then, the French didn’t have Pilgrims or Cowboys to contend with. In order to heal ourselves — and our system — Americans will have to start by healing those guys.

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06 March 2009

Mr. Foote Goes Home

It is with great sorrow that I mark the passing of the author Horton Foote. Since he lived to 92, one can hardly fault him for leaving the stage too soon; his was a life well spent, and well shared. Yet I shall miss him sorely, as one misses any loved one, any family member, any kindred spirit. Somewhere, a carillon is pealing, for a mighty angel has gotten his wings.

On this, the 173rd anniversary of the fall of the Alamo, I conclude with an old hymn, one that figures in the film of his masterpiece, The Trip to Bountiful, and that speaks to his screenplay, Tender Mercies.

Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
Patiently Jesus is waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me!

Come home, come home,
Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary, come home!
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, “O, sinner, come home!”

Why should we tarry when Jesus is pleading,
Pleading for you and for me?
Why should we linger and heed not His mercies,
Mercies for you and for me!


O, for the wonderful love He has promised,
Promised for you and for me!
Though we have sinned, He has mercy and pardon,
Pardon for you and for me.


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04 March 2009

Paul Harvey

News of the death of broadcaster Paul Harvey makes me homesick for a kind of radio and a kind of America with which, paradoxically, I’ve never felt completely at home: unrefined, corny, and conservative in a way that for all its benevolence and restraint is also complicit with some of the worst excesses of the 20th century. In short, everything I’ve tried to get away from since I was 18. Harvey was a voice for the Silent Majority, and just as his Birch Society brand of politics enabled McCarthyism and other Cold War crimes, so his broadcasting — with its seamless combination of news, opinion, and advertising — pointed the way to the rise of talk radio.

His style wasn’t merely distinctive, it was odd, with its sometimes herky-jerky cadences, its somehow tinny baritone, and those unpredictable … pauses and … OUTBURSTS?! For many of us, he was a figure of fun. A friend from school used to insist that Harvey’s program couldn’t be understood properly unless one were high.

One day at CBS, someone made a joke at Harvey’s expense, and Dan Rather wheeled on the joker. “Do you have any idea how many people listen to him?” Dan said. He had a point. Especially in a democracy, the will of the people must be respected, and Harvey earned and kept the loyalty of millions. Dan had to give the guy credit, even if he did work for ABC.

To some degree, the men were kindred spirits. Both were Baptists of modest origins, and champions of the everyday American; they considered soldiers and cops heroes just for wearing a uniform, and they sought out news stories that reinforced this attitude. Both worked hard to keep character in their language, Harvey through coined words (among others, “guesstimate” and “Reaganomics” are of his own invention) and Dan through folksy metaphors known as “Ratherisms.” And both believed passionately in the power of radio.

They grew up in an era when radio’s dominance seemed unassailable, and because there was so little else — no television, no Internet — radio’s impact was clearer to appreciate. By listening to a disembodied voice, thousands of miles away, a boy could be transported; he could take part in heroic struggles; he could share a joke or a song with people he’d never met. Radio was like a train whistle in the night, an invitation to explore. I saw that, every day when Dan sat at the microphone on my desk and broadcast his radio report, he became that boy in the dark again. Even as the corporate geniuses of CBS whittled away at our air time, Dan wouldn’t relinquish the program. So long as he had radio, he maintained his connection to the past, and the chance that he might inspire some other kid, as Murrow had inspired him.

At his best, Paul Harvey was a newspaper columnist who happened to publish his work on the air. Though he called himself a newsman, he was one mainly in the sense that William Safire was: gathering, rather than reporting the news, then commenting on it. He did his own writing, and he managed to achieve perfect clippability: the telling of a story in such a way that the reader (or listener) wants to clip it and send it to a friend, or tape it to the refrigerator door.

By linking his program to advertising and incorporating the advertisement into the body of the report (something Dan would disapprove of), Harvey did very well for himself, and people noticed. This kind of radio could be hugely profitable: just a guy and a microphone, broadcasting his opinions and making millions. Along that paradigm, when the Fairness Doctrine was abolished, talk radio began to dominate. Whereas Harvey’s commentaries lasted a few minutes, we soon had blowhards whose programs lasted hours. Now, when the commentator runs out of steam, he takes a call. It’s so simple, so lucrative, that everyone does it: liberals, conservatives, idiots. They’re all over the airwaves. You may not remember the day, but it’s true: public radio stations in America used to play music.

This has meant the rise of some awfully tedious radio, but it’s also meant the survival of radio itself. In the car, as in the 1930s, there’s not a lot of other entertainment available, so people keep tuning in. Twenty years ago, a lot of people predicted the death of radio; they predicted the same fifty years ago, too. Yet radio continues to prosper. Of all the media being hammered now by digital technology, only radio seems unthreatened. (At least for now.)

Paul Harvey worked in other media, too: he had a television program for a while, and he also wrote a newspaper column, as it happens. But it’s for radio that he’ll be remembered, and those curious Norman Rockwell canvases that he painted for the ear. At first they’re charming, sentimental yet accurate reflections of American life — yet they wind up telling us more about ourselves than we ever expected.

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