27 March 2008

Condoleezza Rice

Condoleezza Rice’s intelligence hits you like a science-fiction force field as soon as you come near her. You can feel how smart she is. Her brains radiate heat energy. That’s something I’ve experienced with very few other people, though I’ve known several who are at least as smart as she, and in her case I wonder if it’s not a kind of defense mechanism: you know without being told to maintain a respectful distance. A woman of her singular beauty (newspaper photographs don’t do her justice) might need to develop such a defense.

And the force field works: when I met her, at a Time Magazine event to discuss the 100 most important people of the last century, I was thoroughly intimidated by her. And so, I think, was my boss.

A recent article by Russell Baker in The New York Review of Books brings this to mind. In examining several biographies of Rice, Baker cites numerous instances of powerful men (notably including the former Secretary of State, George P. Schultz; the former President, George H.W. Bush; and the father of Madeleine Albright, a distinguished professor and foreign-policy expert) who were immediately impressed with her. These instant connections subsequently led to exceptional opportunities that propelled her quickly up the ranks, whether in government or in university administration. Even today, she may rightly be considered a Wunderkind.

What’s harder to understand, then, is why she’s been such a disappointment — though Baker tries hard to explain it. The fact that he’s writing about her this way at all is indicative of just how badly she’s failed: you know you’re in trouble when Baker, one of the most genial writers ever to grace the Op-Ed pages of any major American newspaper, feels he has to take you on.

Identifying the disappointment is easy. A woman of Rice’s intelligence ought to have been able to stand up to George Bush (and/or Dick Cheney and/or Don Rumsfeld), instead of presiding over some of the worst catastrophes of the past seven years. She should have taken more seriously the warnings of an impending attack by Al-Qaeda, instead of maintaining the posture, so brilliantly satirized by The Onion, that “Preventing 9/11 Would Have Meant Accruing a Lot of Overtime.” It’s easy to find fault in hindsight, and yet, again and again, Rice has been proven so very wrong by circumstance, so incompetent and so gullible, that it’s hard to believe she’s as intelligent as she is.

Guided by her biographers, Baker concludes that Rice has been in over her head pretty much since the collapse of the Soviet Union. She has continued to land good jobs, he suggests, more from her ability to charm powerful men than from any evidence that she’ll succeed once they hire her. He analyzes her relationship with the current President — who scored over his opponents in 2000 and 2004 precisely because he wasn’t an intellectual — as a curious mixture of condescension and adoration.

One minute, she’s the teacher, he the student; the next, she’s the fawning courtier, he the king. It’s been remarked that Rice makes Bush feel clever by telling him what good questions he asks during briefings; thus he may never have heard that many intelligence analysts believed bin Laden was about to attack the U.S., or that Saddam’s claims to weapons of mass destruction were bluffs, or that the Iraqis would not, in fact, greet American troops as liberators. Mind you, it was her job as National Security Adviser to make him consider these possibilities, even if she didn’t agree with them. Though it’s entirely possible that Cheney and Rumsfeld would have muscled her out of Washington if she’d spoken up, there’s no evidence to suggest it even occurred to her to do so.

Her apparent confidence in Bush leads her to believe he’ll make the right choices even if he isn’t offered a variety of viewpoints, and even if material has to be presented to him in clear-cut, condensed statements because neither his short attention span nor his simplistic worldview permits lengthy discussion and analysis. Their personal relationship is close, which may well blind her to his limitations, and prevent her from compensating for them, instead of excusing them.

She is, as I say, still quite young, and though her failures in the current administration make it improbable that she’ll be selected as John McCain’s running mate (for example), after leaving Washington she’s certain to find a berth in any number of think tanks, universities, and corporate boards. They’ll be falling over themselves to sign her up. And in a few more years, other government service may beckon. She may yet make an outstanding United States Senator; the increased authority of the office of Vice President (or even President) might suit her better than the comparatively subservient posts she’s held thus far. We haven’t seen the last of her — and she may yet live up to her potential.

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23 March 2008

Celebrations Various

The Demon Chernabog terrorizes Bald Mountain:
A feature of the “Storybook Land” boat ride —
May it get no scarier than this.

It has been a busy week in Paris, culminating in a quiet, rainy Easter weekend. My Texas godsons and their mother visited me for several days, offering me abundant reminders that I’m glad I’m a godfather. (As well as a few reminders that I’m glad I’m not a father.) I feel it’s part of my duty, perhaps even part of the job description, to expose the boys to ideas and experiences they may carry forward in their lives: Paris is meaningful to me, and perhaps some day it will be meaningful to them, too.

For the moment, however, Disneyland seems to have held more allure. We divided ourselves into teams, according to age and taste: the boys sought out the grownup rides, and their mother and I stuck to the kiddie rides. Let it be said that the occasional dips and rises and momentary tilt of the “Casey Jones, Jr.,” train are about all that Karen and I are prepared to handle, at this point in our lives. Meanwhile, the boys grumbled that “Space Mountain” didn’t live up to their expectations — then they dashed off to ride it again.

The trip afforded us all kinds of opportunities to bond. Will is 15 now, and one evening we went out to drink beers and talk about women, while I tried very hard to forget how recently he was a wrinkly pink earthworm asleep in my arms. We are men of the world now, he and I.

Seasoned travellers

Tom is 12, and our bonding was more physical. I was surprised when he told me he wanted to take the “It’s a Small World” ride: he is, after all, a little old for that. But hardly had we taken our seats in the boat before I understood his real purpose: a scientific experiment, to see whether drinking the water in the “Small World” canal really would induce hallucinations like those experienced by Lisa on The Simpsons. Since the force of my argument would not dissuade him from his mission, I resorted to the force of my arms, and held him in a death-lock for the duration of the ride. Some day he will thank me for saving his life.

The rest of the week was devoted predictably to monuments and museums, and less predictably to shivering under awnings and waiting for the freezing rain to stop. We didn’t get around to about three quarters of the things that I normally consider to be absolutely essential. I always tell friends that the most important thing about any trip to Paris is that it will not be the last. In Will and Tom’s case, that’s neither reassurance nor advice; it’s a command.

I’ve now introduced Paris to all of my official godchildren and one unofficial goddaughter, Grace from Los Angeles. I feel I have done my duty by them. I’d like to think that these introductions will have an effect comparable to that of the introduction to opera that my godparents, Ann and Blair Coleman, gave me, many years ago. But at least I know that, no matter what happens, we’ll always have Paris. And that is cause for celebration.

As is the 78th anniversary of the birth of my father, this fine Easter Sunday. I suppose I would celebrate Easter, too, if I were in a country that knew the meaning of marshmallow peeps.

Ceci n’est pas une peep.

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Où sont les toilettes?

Elaine Sciolino, Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, today offered her readers a few hard-won lessons she’s learned during her years here. One point of etiquette she has shared with us before. Namely, she says that when one is dining in a private home, one must never ask to use the toilet. In her experience, the word is considered vulgar by Parisian hostesses and must be avoided. How to do this? Today, Sciolino recommends that one not use the toilet, neither the plumbing nor the word, at all; previously, she has recommended that one ask instead to wash one’s hands.

Though I appreciate the need for discretion in any encounter of any sort in France, Sciolino’s advice has me baffled. In most of the French homes I’ve visited, the toilet and the wash basin, or lavabo, are not in the same room. Often they are at opposite ends of the house. (The lavabo is most often in the bathroom — which is situated near the bedrooms and contains the bathtub, but not the toilet.) Ask for directions to one, when you really need the other, and you’ll wind up in trouble.

What kind of chic dinner parties has Sciolino been attending, anyway?

According to today’s article, Sciolino is wrapping up her tour of duty here in Paris. Maybe she’s just tired of holding it in.

I’ve never quite understood, par ailleurs, why the French do keep the wash basin so far from the toilet. They are fond of telling me that they invented hygiene, or anyway Pasteur discovered germs; and also that they invented soap, or anyway the only soap worth using. One would think the French, of all people, would be the first to make it easier to wash one’s hands.

Or maybe, after all this time, I have finally discovered what a bidet is really used for.

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15 March 2008

The Golden Star of Denise Acabo

Arranging the Bernachon chocolate bars:
A long way from Hershey

UPDATE: As of spring 2014, Mme Acabo has closed her shop. Signs posted on the storefront thank her customers for their unshakable support.

I remade the acquaintance last week of Denise Acabo, the proprietress of what must be one of the most distinctive candy shops in France, not least for its location — which is just off the Place Pigalle. Improbably nestled among sex shops and kebab restaurants, l’Étoile d’Or (The Golden Star) looks like any respectable neighborhood candy shop in this country. Once you walk inside, however, you quickly discover that there’s nothing ordinary about the place, and that Mme Acabo is no ordinary bonbon-monger.

Seldom anywhere and never in France have I met anyone who takes more pleasure in her work: she is nothing short of inspirational. I arrived the other day with a friend who was visiting from New York, and we found Mme Acabo in an expansive mood, eager to share with us the stories behind each and every candy.

Because she specializes in high-quality products direct from the regional makers, and a number of certifiable classic candies with venerable (and sometimes titillating) histories, she has abundant subject matter — and she loves to talk (and to sing) about these things. You’d be amazed, as we were, to learn how many candies were used as aphrodisiacs, or to ward off venereal disease, or to feed the starving during plague years. Some of the candies are made using recipes that are hundreds of years old (or thousands, as in the case of the Graines d’Anis, candy-coated pellets originated by the Greeks), and many (Bergamottes from Nancy, Calissons from Aix) are symbols more important than any flag of the discrimination and flavor of the towns they come from.

It must be said that I’d heard of many — most — of the delicacies on display, although I’d sampled only inferior specimens in other places, never the really high-end wares that Mme Acabo sells. I didn’t dare tell her so.

“I love good food,” Mme Acabo declared at one point, “but if it’s not the highest quality, I’d rather eat nothing at all.” She told us that she seeks out the best and most authentic variety of each candy, and in many cases you can buy a particular bonbon either from the maker or from her, and from nobody else on earth — or at least from nobody else in Paris, which as we know amounts to much the same thing.

She’s especially keen on freshness, and when possible she sells candies made with organic materials. “You wouldn’t believe the artificial colors people try to sell,” she said. Well, yes, actually, I would; I’m from America.

Proving that it’s possible to own a candy shop and still have good teeth

She’s been in the business for some 30 years, she told us, but she has the enthusiasm and fashion sense of a schoolgirl: she wears jumpers and plaid skirts, and keeps her hair in pigtails.

One would speak of a kid in a candy store, except that she’s a shrewd businesswoman — and moreover, on my first visit to the shop, a year ago or so, Mme Acabo was assisted by her granddaughter, a little girl of seven or eight, who was as sober and reserved as any grownup. The lesson: Candy is serious.

But candy is also magical, and I’m reminded of Mrs. Corrie, a character in the Mary Poppins books. In her sweet shop, she sells gingerbread (as does Mme Acabo), and on each piece of gingerbread is a gold star. Children aren’t allowed to keep the stars; they must return them to Mrs. Corrie. And then one night, Jane and Michael Banks look out their window to see Mrs. Corrie atop an immense ladder, held in place by her two very tall daughters. With a pot of paste in one hand, she’s sticking those stars against the sky.

I’m betting Mme Acabo could do the same thing, if she chose to.

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14 March 2008

The Emperor Has No Taste

All Hat, No Cattle: Bush serenades the Gridiron Club

I may never say this again, but in my more lucid moments, I’m glad I’m not Jon Stewart. How can one be expected to make satirical jokes at the expense of politicians, when the principal object of one’s mockery already does the job so thoroughly? What’s left to say? Moreover, Stewart’s jokes are constrained by good taste and decency, while George Bush’s material, apparently, is not.

Hard on the heels of President Bush’s dance recital came his vocal recital, at the Gridiron Club last weekend. He parodied the old Porter Wagoner song, “Green Green Grass of Home,” joking about how good it would be to retire to his (horseless, cowless) ranch back in Crawford, TX.

Something struck me as wrong here. I remembered the song being about a soldier coming home from the war in Vietnam. Which, given Mr. Bush’s service record during that particular conflict, would be in pretty poor taste.

But I was wrong. It’s not about a soldier. It’s about a prisoner awaiting execution, and dreaming of the home and loved ones he’ll never see again. And that’s what the President — an enthusiastic supporter of the death penalty, who as Governor of Texas oversaw more than 150 executions, breaking the records of recent history — chose to make fun of.

Yep, it turns out that his taste is even worse than I thought.

“Oh, give him a break,” you may say; “maybe he didn’t know the song’s origins.”

If you believe that the President’s staff includes no one capable of doing what I did — namely, looking up the title on Wikipedia — well, good luck to you.

His handlers should have been vetting his material with particular scrutiny on the subject of the death penalty, ever since, as Governor, he made headlines by mocking one of the condemned, Karla Faye Tucker. (“Please don’t kill me!”)

On Thursday, the President seized another opportunity to say something inappropriate about soldiers and war. Addressing Americans in Afghanistan via videoconference, Mr. Bush said:
I must say, I'm a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. It must be exciting for you … in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You're really making history, and thanks.
Of course, when Mr. Bush really was younger and not employed at the White House, he passed up the “fantastic experience” of fighting in Vietnam. Maybe it wasn’t romantic enough for him, or he didn’t consider it sufficiently historic. I’m sure he had a good reason. So he asked his dad to pull a few strings to get him into the National Guard, and then couldn’t even be bothered to show up for duty.

Now he’s getting wistful over missing out on all the fun in Afghanistan.

I suppose I should take some comfort in this rare bit of evidence that he hasn’t forgotten Afghanistan altogether. But Mr. Bush isn’t the only one who can’t wait for him to get back to the brown, brown grass of home.

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11 March 2008

Ana María Martínez

There’s a widespread perception in Opera World that sopranos are: crazy, temperamental, self-centered, irresponsible, shrill, imperious, unprofessional, and not very bright. In short, prima donnas. The term “prima donna” means nothing more than “leading lady,” but some sopranos’ behavior has given it a bad rep.

In a survey I conducted for Opera News, the mezzo Susan Graham observed that these women ought to be called “sola donnas,” because they act as if they’re the only women on earth. In my very first interview, however, the soprano Beverly Sills told me that the temperamental soprano is a cliché at most, “Because they’d never be able to put on an opera at all, if some of those stories were true.”

Nevertheless, most clichés find their origins in truth, and while the sopranos I’ve known have been thoroughly nice women (who hate to be called “prima donnas”), I’m always relieved to find another who’s sensible. Such a one is Ana María Martínez.

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York, Ana María has been in Paris the past few weeks; she’s wrapping up a run as Verdi’s Luisa Miller. It’s an extraordinarily good part for her, lying beautifully in her voice, with its richly rounded, warm, almost chocolaty sound, its lyric agility and sometimes surprising power. Luisa is a good acting part for her, too, drawing on her ability to project tenderness and vulnerability. I’d love to see her in a staging that was less static and gave her more freedom to explore the character, because Ana María never ceases to come up with insightful analyses that translate to unusually vivid performances.

Her father is a psychoanalyst, and it’s tempting — and reductive — to say that Ana María puts her characters on the couch. I’m sure her family background does give her a framework, as well as a willingness to dig more deeply into a character’s mind. But psychology is only a start, only one tool — and not the most important — in her work. She’s just plain smart — just plain sensitive.

And no matter how well I think I know a role, a conversation with Ana María invariably gives me some new angle to consider. Once, we were talking about the heroine of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette — who differs very little from her Shakespearean precursor, except that she sings more and doesn’t speak English. I offered up the observation that Juliette starts out as an immature girl, but grows into womanhood by the end of the story.

Ana María very politely set me straight. Taking her life doesn’t prove Juliette’s maturity, she said. If anything, it’s the opposite: she doesn’t understand the consequences of her actions.

Wow. In similar fashion, she’s enlightened me on Mimì in La Bohème, Pamina in The Magic Flute, Maria in West Side Story, and Luisa Miller herself. It’s gotten to the point that I’m spoiled: it’s not enough to hear her sing, I want to hear her explain, too.

Role of a lifetime: Loving mom

Dangerous is the singer who overthinks, and Ana María doesn’t. I’m not quite sure how she avoids it, except that these detailed analyses may be mere preparation — the way a Method actress can describe details of her character’s bedroom, or family relationships with characters who don’t appear in the play, things that may have little direct bearing on what does happen. But they’re resources, things she can call upon if she needs them.

It’s my impression that Ana María couldn’t sing a note onstage if she didn’t know why the character was singing. But once she does know why — she lets the music happen. Naturally.

All of that may help to explain why I admire her as an artist, but I haven’t said a word yet about how much fun she is. I had talked to her in preparing magazine articles, but we hadn’t sat down for a good heart-to-heart until two years ago, when she sang Amelia in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. We met for lunch on the Place des Vosges, in a little restaurant where one of the waiters had made a pet of her. He kept serving us tidbits and refilling our glasses, and we kept talking. The next thing we knew, nearly eight hours had passed — and we were old friends. (Although I have this weird feeling that people who know her better than I call her ”Ana,” without the María.)

She’s got a great sense of humor, and she’s a talented mimic. She does an Uptown Chica Borriqua so flawlessly, it’s almost like a Lily Tomlin character, not a generic imitation, and if there’s any justice on earth, somebody is going to write an opera that will let her bring that character to the stage.

Chad and Ana María,
with their most dramatic collaboration yet

Yesterday, we got together for lunch with her husband, the tenor Chad Shelton (whom I’d heard but never met), and their baby, Lucas — a sunny, friendly kid who, like Ana María, celebrates a birthday today. (It’s his first.) Motherhood suits her, and she says it’s the realization of a dream she’s cherished since she was a very little girl. We talked a lot about Lucas’ future, the determination of both Ana María and Chad to be “hands on” parents and not to let their careers get in the way. Lucas is going to have some terrific advantages, especially culturally: seeing the world, learning languages, hearing great music.

At one point, Ana María and Chad both sang for him, and I thought, “This kid is getting lullabies for free that audiences would and do pay to hear!”

I asked whether Ana María and Chad would be happy to see Lucas become a singer, too. Chad clearly hopes he’ll make another choice, though he says he’ll be supportive if it’s what Lucas really, really wants to do. Ana María said simply, “I just want him to be happy.”

This lunch lasted only a couple of hours, and there was no wine. We have agreed that we’ll have to wait until Lucas is in college before we have another of those get-togethers. But in the meantime, mi amiga querida remains a generous, caring soul — and a helluva good soprano.

NOTE: Among her several recordings and video performances, Ana María Martínez can be heard to especially good effect on a wonderful (and low-priced) CD available here. It’s an excellent introduction to her voice — and her versatility. Her Parisian Luisa Miller is coming to DVD soon. You can hear her with Chad Shelton in Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas, available here. It was while working on this opera that the two met.

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Lo, How the Mighty, etc.

Upon learning yesterday of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s implication in a prostitution scandal, my first thoughts went to my goddaughter. She’s attended school with the Governor’s daughter and, like many of her classmates, accorded Mr. Spitzer the kind of admiration usually directed by girls their age at rock musicians and stars of prime-time dramas on the WB.

It’s a tough thing for anybody when a politician disappoints us, but tougher still, I suspect, for a younger person. It’s like having your heart broken by your first crush, but it’s also a rude introduction to the sordid behavior of grownups. The fact that Spitzer’s conduct taps into so many issues of sex — a dad hires hookers — at the moment when my goddaughter is figuring out what it means to be a woman, only compounds the problem. I wonder how she’s going to cope. She’s a very private person (one reason I’m not using her name here), so I’m not sure she’ll tell me.

It’s possible that her generation may be unable to experience much idealism about a politician. My goddaughter was in kindergarten when the so-called Lewinsky scandal blew up, so presumably the idea that politicians (even crusading reformers like Spitzer) have feet of clay isn’t new to her. She may even see her former hero cling to office, like Larry Craig, the Senator from Idaho who, caught in a sex scandal last year, promised to resign — but didn’t keep that promise. (Cue Groucho’s “Hello, I Must Be Going.”) Politics is a strange business, and Spitzer’s career may survive. In a way, though, that’s the problem, especially for young people.

When I was a little younger than she, Watergate was in full cry. I hadn’t admired Richard Nixon particularly. I wrote him a letter telling him that the Vietnam War was stupid, and asking him to pay more attention to ecology. (I got a very nice response from Rosemary Woods, who wasn’t yet famous.) But I’d grown up in the Cold War environment, in which the Presidency was held up in textbooks to be revered by schoolkids, and I was sorely disillusioned by Watergate. Up until that time, I’d pretty much intended to go into politics when I grew up, but during the scandal, it was the reporters, not the politicians, who were the good guys, and I threw in my lot with them. Fourteen years later, I went to work for Dan Rather. One could construe this as a happy outcome.

In recent days, another young woman, a Wellesley grad, has been complaining that she doesn’t wholeheartedly endorse any of the current Presidential candidates, and I sympathize with that, too. Based on my experience with John B. Anderson, the first candidate I supported actively, I now believe pretty firmly that any politician with whom I agree on every issue hasn’t got a chance of being elected. Holding my nose in the voting booth is something I’ve gotten used to. But politics wreaks havocs with young people’s emotions, and with their idealism, which could be so helpful and constructive to the jaded rest of society.

Nevertheless, my goddaughter has turned already toward another political figure who is stirring up the fires of her idealism — Barack Obama — and so her transition from starry-eyed enthusiast to disillusioned nose-holder may be smoother than mine. I hope so. We need people like her in this country. It’s a shame so many grownups seem intent on jerking her and her friends around.

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10 March 2008

A Short Trip to Stepford

If you don’t follow the Washington Post on a regular basis, you may have missed one of the more interesting contretemps to dust up the (virtual) pages of a major newspaper in recent times. Last week, the paper published an opinion piece, “We Scream. We Swoon. How Dumb Can We Get?” by Charlotte Allen. The piece caught my eye because it spoke of the phenomenon of fainting at Obama rallies, something I’d heard of only lately, but that was only one of the topics Ms. Allen touched on.

“I can't help it, but reading about such episodes of screaming, gushing and swooning makes me wonder whether women — I should say, ‘we women,’ of course — aren't the weaker sex after all,” the article begins. “Or even the stupid sex, our brains permanently occluded by random emotions, psychosomatic flailings and distraction by the superficial. Women ‘are only children of a larger growth,’ wrote the 18th-century Earl of Chesterfield. Could he have been right?”

“I meant it to be funny but with a serious point — that women want to be taken seriously but quite often don’t act serious,” she explained later, in an online chat. “Also, that women and men really are different.”

To bolster her argument, she attacked women’s television preferences (Oprah Winfrey, Grey’s Anatomy) and reading habits (Eat, Shop, Pray, which a friend has been urging on me, as it happens), and found statistics to “prove” that women are worse drivers, have smaller brains, can’t visualize three-dimensional concepts, etc. Having assembled (loosely, lightly) these arguments, she concluded:
I don't understand why more women don't relax, enjoy the innate abilities most of us possess (as well as the ones fewer of us possess) and revel in the things most important to life at which nearly all of us excel: tenderness toward children and men and the weak and the ability to make a house a home. (Even I, who inherited my interior-decorating skills from my Bronx Irish paternal grandmother, whose idea of upgrading the living-room sofa was to throw a blanket over it, can make a house a home.) Then we could shriek and swoon and gossip and read chick lit to our hearts' content and not mind the fact that way down deep, we are . . . kind of dim.
The story provoked protests (and a few cheers) in hundreds of e-mailed messages from readers, and a controversy in the editorial offices. The piece was badly written and should never have been published in the first place, it was said. (In truth, it’s a difficult kind of writing to pull off. Allen kept the tone light, yet it was hard to tell how seriously she intended her message to be understood.) Others argued that the paper would never run any article on other groups, such as blacks and Asians, and they wanted to know why it was okay to write about women this way.

The editor of the piece, a woman, declared herself unprepared for the backlash: she thought the article was funny. It’s a safe bet she wouldn’t have been laughing had the author been a man, and not many other people were laughing, either, as it was.

The Post called a few heavy hitters to weigh in. Katha Pollitt, the feminist author, assailed Allen’s statistics and the bases of all her arguments, while pointing out the lack of women on the paper’s editorial staff and among its opinion columnists. The paper’s own ombudsman, Deborah Howell, largely agreed with Pollitt and raised another good reason to dislike Allen’s article: it’s not funny. Caitlin Gibson, the paper’s legal administrator, and Rachel Manteuffel, a local actor and writer, co-signed an analysis of Allen’s article, asking, “What is it?” and “Why did she write it?”

Even before the backlash gained momentum, I shared the article with two of the smartest women I know. One, a Wellesley grad, was infuriated. The other, an alumna of Rice, was too busy managing her career and family to read the article closely, yet she immediately identified the dichotomy between women’s emotional and intellectual intelligence, which Allen confounded in order to buttress her claims.

Which leads me to my own reactions. I found the piece sloppily written and unsatisfying. It promised far more than it delivered: by the time I got to the end, I was already dismissing it. That doesn’t mean that Charlotte Allen is dumb — au contraire, she’s a highly intelligent person who works for a conservative think tank.

So why did she write the piece? Does she really want women to skip cheerfully off to Stepford? Does anybody want that? I mean — ye gods — how boring! For everybody!

I’m amazed that in 2008 people are still talking this way. The last time society tried to treat women as silly helpless creatures, the result was the 1950s, an era that’s fondly recalled by many: the streets were safe, the economy was good, people never complained. Oh, and the clothes were pretty. Forget about the witch hunts, the lynchings, the repression and frustration, — and the example of my late aunt Louise.

Louise passed away a few weeks ago. Sex and history denied her the opportunity to exploit her staggering intellect the way she would have preferred: fully. If she’d been born a few decades later, she’d have wound up a research scientist, a college professor. No such luck. She was never a Stepford Wife, and she did find outlets for her abilities, but she never shook off the resentment. Indeed, she could be incredibly unpleasant to be around. Is this what we want for our aunts — our mothers — our wives and sisters and daughters?

The question of women’s intelligence was answered for me before I was born. Both my grandmothers were college graduates — unusual, for their generation. Both were schoolteachers, and only because my maternal grandmother held a job did her family survive the Depression. My mother, my godmother, and many of my aunts were schoolteachers, as well, and outside the circle of my family, I have benefited from the lessons of smart, strong women: teachers, from Pamela Morton to Carolyn Heilbrun; role models, like Beverly Sills and Katharine Hepburn; and every one of my female friends.

As for the superiority or inferiority of either sex, Dr. Heilbrun liked to point out that all the qualities that we typically associate with women (nurturing, healing, teaching, and communicating) are those we associate with civilization; those we associate with men (fighting, fighting, and fighting) are those we associate with barbarism.

I suppose I owe Charlotte Allen a debt of gratitude for reminding me which side I’m on.

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09 March 2008

That Old Feeling

Happy Feet

It’s the little things a guy does that keep the relationship fresh. It’s been seven long years, but just when I think I am so over George Bush, he’ll find a way to give me that old feeling again.

Unfortunately, that feeling is outrage. But it’s a rainy Sunday morning in Paris, and I’d like to focus on something more cheerful.

The photographs above were taken last week when President Bush gave John McCain his endorsement. Apparently McCain is ambivalent about the support, because he kept the President of the United States waiting for several minutes. (Gotta love McCain. He’s living the dream, for all of us.*) A lesser man might have lost his temper, or gone off and signed some legislation until McCain was ready to roll. Not George Bush. He broke into a little dance.

What went unreported was the song to which Bush’s little performance was choreographed. I have a few theories:
“Call Me Irresponsible”
“I Ran So Far Away”
“Shake Me, Wake Me When It’s Over”
“We Didn’t Start the Fire”
"I’m Too Sexy for My Shirt”

If you have any ideas, please write to tell me. I’ll post any ones that make me laugh out loud.

*UPDATE: McCain’s ambivalence has persisted. As of Monday, 10 March, his campaign website still made no reference to Bush’s endorsement. Sorta like he doesn’t want to be reminded of it.

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08 March 2008

A Confession (Of Sorts)

Following the recent, high-profile exposures of Margaret B. Jones’ Love and Consequences (in which a young woman from Sherman Oaks purports to be a former gang member from L.A.) and Misha Defonseca’s Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust (in which a Gentile purports to be a Jewish refugee raised by wolves — no, really), I am seizing the initiative to clarify a few details in my recent autobiography, A Method to This Madison: How I Survived the Mean Streets of Rio de Janeiro as an Orphaned Black Jewish Lesbian Midget Single Mother and Also Later Discovered the Cure for Cancer.

I am aware that documents and eyewitnesses do not always bear out a few — a very few — of my assertions. However, I very sincerely believe the book to be true in spirit, and I will vouch with every breath for the emotional factuality of every statement I have made.

For example, critics contest my claim that I am the President of France. And I am aware that an exhaustive investigation of back issues of the magazine Paris Match at the laundromat and close observation of the waxworks in the Hall of Fame at the Musée Grévin do indeed indicate that, during the period in question (1985–present), three different people also claim to have held that post. Bolstering their counterclaims is the fact that each of these gentlemen is French. However, my passport and other legal documents do confirm, irrefutably, that I have spent a great deal of time in France. I believe that history will bear me out. Feet first, perhaps, but nevertheless.

Some investigators believe that one of these men, not I, is the current President of France.

I may have exaggerated slightly when I said that I had written A la recherche du temps perdu. Internet sleuths have tracked down royalty statements addressed to one Marcel Proust, which might suggest that he is the author of that novel. However, it is provably true that I wrote the title. A la recherche du temps perdu — I just did it again!

When my editor questioned portions of Chapter 37, which discusses in detail my successful career as a lounge singer in Las Vegas, I provided her with audio recordings that she may have believed supported my claims. However, closer examination may reveal that these are old Vic Damone records with the name “Vic Damone” crossed out, and my own name written over in Magic Marker. What I intended for my editor — and my readers — to understand was that I wanted to sing like Vic Damone. Yet again, the emotional truth of my book is rock-solid.

Unfortunately, by including the above photo in my book with the caption “Here I am on the set of Sweeney Todd with Helena Bonham Carter,” I may have given some readers the impression that I am Johnny Depp. Well, I am — in my dreams. And no one can disprove that.

My birth certificate and school records do suggest that I was raised by a certain Mr. and Mrs. Madison, or Mattislow, a kindly couple in the state of Texas, and not by a foster family of wolves in the forests of Germany. Although there are substantial gaps in the record, experts on animal behavior have told me that the time involved would have been insufficient for any wolf to make me a sandwich or to teach me to play poker, as I wrote in a series of heartwarming scenes in my book. Some of these “experts” have the audacity to allege that inclusion of such scenes only proves that I know nothing about wolves, who lack hands that would be necessary to wield a knife in order to spread the peanut butter, and who are very bad card players.

But I am also a very bad card player — that’s my point! And a closer reading of the passages under scrutiny reveals that I never said my parents were wolves — only that they had sharp teeth and that I was constantly afraid that they would bite me.

And that fear was wholly justified.

To date, no critics have challenged the other chapters in my book, in which I detail my experiences as a tree surgeon in the Philippine jungles, my service as a Honduran mercenary, my heroic rescue of a shipwrecked boatload of puppies, my leadership of the Russian mafia, my moon landing, my simultaneous editorship of National Review and Slutty Juggz, my winning the Triple Crown in 1987, or my years as lovable Tootie on TV’s Facts of Life. And therefore it is without reservation that I urge you to read my book.

Like any reputable autobiographer, I stand by my every word. Until further notice.

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03 March 2008

Leaving Home

Ours is a mobile society, and yet we remain nest-builders as a race. We make of friends our families, and we make of their homes our own.

The prospect, then, of the loss of one of those homes is strangely distressing: it is as if something and yet nothing is being taken away from me.

Today, Jon Feldstein will leave the apartment where he has lived for nearly as long as I’ve known him. When loved ones die, we reassure one other by saying, “He’s going to a better place,” and in Feldstein’s case (happily not mortal), this is provably true. His new apartment is bigger and fancier, and it’s in an exciting neighborhood. He claims there even will be space to lodge me, when I come to visit. But I’ll miss the old place — the shelter I sought when New York was attacked, my forwarding address, my base of operations for exploring Greenwich Village, and the setting for so many parties and flirtations and embarrassments.

It was merely a studio with a glorified alcove and dubious plumbing; the kitchen a former closet, with hardly enough room to make a sandwich. Because of the vintage leaded window panes, air conditioning the place was pretty much impossible, and Jon’s attempts to do so defied the laws of thermodynamics.

These things seldom mattered to us when he was entertaining, as he so often was. When the apartment got crowded and you wanted privacy, you’d retire to the stairwell, and when you wanted air, you’d bribe the doorman and go up to the roof. Jon’s vast collection of housewares, inherited from his aunt Martha, a compulsive shopper, always served, no matter how many we were, though we sometimes ran out of beer, and there were never enough places to sit.

The apartment commanded an excellent view of Christopher Street and Sixth Avenue and their annual parades, and it happened sometimes that random strangers came up by accident and stayed, on Halloween or Pride Day, to celebrate with us all.

On my last weekend in the city, Feldstein threw a party for me, and the tiny room was packed with my friends. But you know, even when he and I were sitting alone, the room was packed with my friends — anyway, the one who counted most.

I guess it’s time to move on. We’ll build new nests, and make of them what we can. And eventually, I’ll memorize the new address.

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02 March 2008

Sears R. Jayne

Let us now praise Renaissance men.
(This is
The Triumph of Bacchus, by Velasquez.)

As the twenty-fifth anniversary of my college graduation draws nigh, my thoughts turn daily to my professors. They were a remarkable lot, and in coming days I expect I’ll post little portraits of some of them: Barbara Monahan, my “staraya babushka,” who tried so valiantly to teach me to speak Russian; Bruce Donovan, who tried equally to teach me Ancient Greek; James O. Barnhill, who remains for me the living embodiment of the joy of theater. Yet in some respects the best of my teachers, and the one who summed up what we used to call “The Brown Experience,” was Sears R. Jayne.

His physical resemblance to my paternal grandfather, a fellow Midwesterner who died when I was 5, might have earned him my automatic affection, as might his innate kindness, another trait the two men shared. My grandfather was a preacher, and so in a sense was Sears Jayne. But my grandfather’s faith was Methodism, and Mr. Jayne’s was humanism — a concept new to me at the time, though I became at once the truest of believers. For all I know, he practiced some other faith, in his private time, but he converted me.

He taught a survey of Renaissance literature: Montaigne, Erasmus, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Cervantes, Machiavelli, Quevedo, authors who delved deep in the multiplicities of experience and whose works haven’t left my side since. He taught English poetry, too, and I daresay that if he’d taught basket-weaving or a survey of medieval laundry lists, I’d have enrolled in that course, too, and learned something lasting about humanity.

In his rolling, somewhat foggy baritone, language was never more ecstatic. One of my most vivid memories is of his reading of Eliot’s “Sweeney Agonistes,” portions of which quote “If You Lakka Me,” an old song of dubious racial sensitivity but great charm. (Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien sing it in Meet Me in St. Louis.) Hopping and shimmying, swaying and braying, Mr. Jayne attended some other melody than the original. “Under the bam, under the boo, under the bamboo tree!” he howled, until the whole campus seemed to dance along with him.

It was impossible to take any text lightly, or less than passionately, when Sears Jayne offered it to you.

His own words were even more potent. Seldom was the lecture that didn’t end with some or all of the students moved to tears, as we were the morning he spoke of the future. He saw us so worried, he said, about nuclear war and personal relationships and money, and all the rest, and turning to drugs and drink to escape. That saddened him, and he searched for comfort to offer us. Whatever mess the world was in, however beleaguered we might be, he told us, all would be made well on the day when we came home and found our children smiling up at us from the bath.

That huge voice became knotted with emotion as he spoke, and the glass of his spectacles seemed to fog over. We all saw the image of his own daughters, years before, when he was a young man like us.

“It’s going to be okay,” we thought. “Life will go on.” As indeed it has, so far.

He adored us, and it had been the unsettling surprise of the English Department, who had hired him as a star to lure in graduate students, that he preferred us undergraduates. I responded in somewhat like fashion: he taught lecture classes, with discussion sections, and although he encouraged us to attend the sections led by his teaching assistants, for the benefit of exposure to other opinions, I steadfastly attended only those that he led himself.

That may have been selfish, yet I couldn’t force myself to regret it, and it was in keeping with his methodology. He was deeply interested in our responses to literature, and whole essays might be devoted to how we felt about a poem or a book. The final exam in the Renaissance survey course asked which of the authors we’d studied we’d prefer as a father: I chose Cervantes, after lingering wistfully over Rabelais.

To have studied with a teaching assistant would have been to deny myself the full force of Mr. Jayne’s instruction — and my reaction to it.

In poetry class, we were asked to compile an anthology of poems that were meaningful to us personally. I made a point of including Kipling’s “If,” because Mr. Jayne had proclaimed that it wasn’t a poem at all, just a series of statements. But when I was a boy, my mother used to read “If” with such conviction that I believed she’d written it: “And, what is more, you’ll be a man, my son!”

Returning my anthology, Mr. Jayne thoughtfully wrote, “I apologize for insulting your mother’s poem.”

His solipsistic approach pretty much derailed any ambitions I might have harbored for a career in comparative literature, which in the Ivy League in those days (and doubtless still) was subjected to rigorous deconstructions and arcane theories. Mr. Jayne would not endorse these methods, I think, or have much patience with them, either. One of the most astonishing essays I have ever read was his almost entirely theory-free analysis of King Lear. To his eyes, the play is “the tragedy of people who fail to love each other enough.”

He retired at the end of my sophomore year, having at the last minute persuaded me to become an English major, and at the end of his last lecture, current and former students crowded into the hall to bid him farewell. There were readings and tributes, and I presented him with a three-quarter life-size portrait I’d painted (badly, of course) of him in full cry, reading from a little book marked “Sweeney Agonistes.”

I corresponded with him, briefly, after I graduated. I should have kept on writing to him — not least when I discovered The Firebrand of Florence, Kurt Weill’s adaptation of Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography, one of the pillars of the Renaissance survey course and the occasion of one of Mr. Jayne’s most unforgettable lessons.

When he was teaching at the University of Virginia, he told us, William Faulkner came as a guest professor. The great author was in his full gentleman-farmer mode in those days, and he arrived in horsey regalia, jodhpurs and boots, a red jacket and a little riding crop.

A young reporter from Life magazine had been assigned to cover Faulkner’s first class, for these were the days when the movements of great authors still made news. It’s likely that if the poor journalist had simply sat in the back of the classroom, as he intended to do, Faulkner never would have noticed him. But he made the mistake of going to Faulkner’s office to ask permission first.

Mr. Jayne’s office was on the same floor, and when the commotion began, he ran into the hallway to see Faulkner thrashing the journalist with his riding crop, chasing the fellow down the hall, down the stairs, and out the door. Faulkner returned, dusting off his jodhpurs and grinning. To the flabbergasted professors, the Nobel Prizewinner crowed, “I showed that bastard, didn’t I?”

“Now, William Faulkner wrote the greatest novel of my lifetime, which is The Sound and the Fury,” Mr. Jayne said to us. “But the question arises: Does great art excuse bad conduct? And the answer — ”

He paused, as every one of us leaned forward over the seminar table to hear.

“ — is no.”

No preacher ever made the point more indelibly. It was Mr. Jayne’s belief that Cellini halted his autobiography when he read over the manuscript and found himself disgusted by its catalogue of his own excesses.

Be that as it may, in the years since Mr. Jayne’s class, I’ve seen his lesson tested by many artists, those I knew personally and those I did not; I’ve tested it myself. Great art doesn’t excuse bad behavior. (And mediocre art doesn’t excuse even itself.) Mr. Jayne was right. As usual.

I’d like to tell him that, but I fear that I’ll be able to do so only if my grandfather was right, and we meet some day in Heaven.

UPDATE: Sears Jayne died on 11 April 2015, at the age of 94. I’m grateful to his family for making it possible for us to renew contact and to exchange a few e-mails after so many years. His daughter sent along this photo, taken some 30 years before Mr. Jayne’s last class at Brown. Strange to see that familiar face, so much younger than I knew it — younger then than I am now!

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Onkel Kurt

Weill and Lenya

Today is Kurt Weill’s birthday. Had he lived, he’d be 108. But he didn’t live; he died at 50, and it’s with surprise that I calculated this morning that I’ve nearly surpassed him in age, if nothing else. Because of my early employment at the Weill Foundation, I got to know several people who knew him very well: Lys Symonette, Maurice Abravanel, Burgess Meredith, und so weiter. But they were all quite old by the time I knew them, and they’re gone now, too.

Each of them tried to share Weill with me, in pictures, letters, anecdotes, even imitations. Lys used to say that Weill always had a particular little smile on his face, which she found in very few of his photographs, and which she tried to demonstrate for me. But because she looked nothing like him, I’m not sure I got the right impression.

Weill had no children. Which made of us at the Foundation heirs in the legal sense but also in the sense of family. The things you might know about an uncle, even if he died long before you were born, are things that I know about Kurt Weill. Pointless, random bits of information that no biographer could ever use. But they are his legacy, as much as his music, and they make of him my uncle — Onkel Kurt.

For instance. When presented with a problem, I sometimes find myself muttering, “Wir miiiiiissen das Biiiiiiiischlein befragen” — “We must look it up in the little book,” with a heavy, whining southern accent. Some schoolmaster of Kurt Weill’s used to say that, and it became first a schoolboy jest, then a constant refrain when Onkel Kurt played Scrabble. From him it passed to Lotte Lenya, his widow, and from Lenya to Lys, and from Lys it’s been passed on to me. Just like family.

A little anecdote. One night, Weill went to the Metropolitan Opera to hear The Barber of Seville. (Why? It’s hardly the kind of music he ordinarily sought out. Maybe Abravanel invited him.) During intermission, he overheard a couple of women talking.

“I hear Rossini wrote the overture last,” said one.

“Oh,” replied her friend, “I’m glaaaaad.”

And that’s the punchline to the story. What’s the point? I don’t know — excepting perhaps that it reveals the sorts of things that amused Weill. I share the story with you so that it will not be lost.

On another evening at the theater, Weill noticed two other ladies staring at him and whispering. “It’s him!” “No, it’s not!” “Yes, it is!” Finally, one of them approached him.

“Oh, Mr. Romberg, could we have your autograph?”

And Onkel Kurt dutifully signed the program: Sigmund Romberg.

Somebody still has that, I’ll bet.

In matters more consequential, Weill exerts a huge influence on me. His music hit me like a thunderbolt, and it still does. No matter how many people try to copy him, that sound belongs to him alone. And because of it, I’ve gotten to know some extraordinary people, at the Foundation, at the opera house, and in my dreams, where Lenya still makes occasional appearances — checking up on me, giving me news of our mutual friends.

Onkel Kurt himself is a bit more elusive. He’s never once appeared in my dreams. But not unlike the narrator of Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, I keep trying to track him down. Years ago, I met his last mistress, who broke down sobbing at his funeral and had to be carried away. (“But you see,” said Lenya as she watched, “I loved him, too.”) By the time I met her, she was a dignified upper-middle-class matron, and officially I wasn’t supposed to know of her amorous past. She didn’t tell me anything about anything — but I studied her minutely.

With David Farneth, I visited Brook House, Weill and Lenya’s home in New City, New York, and I reflected on the fact that my Onkel was a short little guy. People had told me this, of course, but it’s not until you bang your head on the rafters of his house that you really understand.

I used to stay up late at night in the Foundation archive, reading Onkel Kurt’s old letters. They’re wonderfully stylish, in English as in German, and I admire especially his ability to describe his every work as “something completely new and original”: he was shy in many circumstances, but not when it came to self-promotion. An artist needs to know how to do that. Now whenever I write a pitch, I think of him, offering a temporary antidote to all the modesty I was brought up to believe in.

I’d leave the archive and walk up Broadway in the midnight darkness. I’d see old men on the street, and I’d look for Onkel Kurt in them. Sometimes I found him, a little.


Curiously, what may have told me the most about him was a little packet of tiny photographs I found in the archive. They’re pictures of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, the stars of Burr Tilstrom’s puppet show for children. Weill was a fan, and as he was dying in the hospital, he watched the program faithfully, and wrote asking for pictures. And here they were.

He looked remarkably like Kukla, as he must have realized. I can see him taking the pictures out of their envelope — and smiling. The way Lys remembered him.

How better to explain his music than to tell you that I hear that smile in every song? Playful, ironic, secretive.

I’m not an ideal nephew. Tante Lenya’s beautiful Chinese desk has a big scratch across one side, and I’m the idiot who put it there. But that’s how it is with family. And I love Lenya — and Onkel Kurt — as truly as if I ever knew them.

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01 March 2008

Oh, the Humanities!

“Is our children learning?” President Bush once asked, and this morning I’d like to follow up on that question. What is our children learning? I sincerely hope that it’s a great deal of math and science, because on the evidence they’re learning nothing of history and literature.

A new advocacy group called Common Core has released the results of a recent survey, taking a sampling of 17-year-old high-school students and asking them multiple-choice questions. I found the story on the web magazine Slate, which provides sample pages of the quiz (so you can take it yourself) and reports on some but not all of the results. The only question to elicit a near-unanimous correct response, according to Slate, was that which asked who gave the “I Have a Dream” speech; meanwhile, fewer than half the students knew when the Civil War was fought. I was unable to download Common Core’s brochure, which lists other results, but my hair is on fire as it is.

We already knew that America’s children were learning nothing of music and art, because those programs were cut years ago. Nobody seems to have considered the very real possibility that in another generation or two, Americans will be unable to write their own songs: we have outsourced music to countries where it’s still taught. We already don’t know how to listen to music, because we have no music-appreciation courses. Thus Americans fuel the commercial-music industry. We want what’s new, not what’s enduring — because the enduring stuff is too complex for us. We prefer the bubblegum, get bored within six months, and run off to buy more. (At least, those of us who still pay for it.) Of course, “pop” is called that for a reason, but other forms of music — jazz and classical — might be more popular, if only Americans had the tools to understand them properly.

Now it seems we’re in danger of not understanding quite a lot of other things, too. Literary, even Biblical, allusions will be lost on us — which in turn will make it more difficult to explain important concepts to us. We’ll know nothing of our history, which will deprive us of the context with which to understand our present and our future. Some of the kids who took this quiz will be eligible to vote in November. Are we prepared to hand over the country to people so ignorant?

Well, we already handed the country over to George Bush, who until recently used to boast of how little he read (a rude slap at his wife and mother, both of whom are commendable advocates of literacy) and whose grasp of history can be judged in his attempts to draw parallels between the Iraqi war and the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, and the war in Vietnam. Since significant numbers of Americans apparently don’t know when or where these conflicts took place, they may take Bush’s pronouncements at face value — or, as he might prefer it, on faith.

Though I fled the country the day after Bush was elected, in 2004, I’m reluctant to blame him automatically for everything that goes wrong in the world. I’m funny that way.

But Common Core identifies Bush’s much-touted “No Child Left Behind” program as a source of the current crisis. The program’s standardized testing places emphasis on basic skills, math and reading, and despite the best hopes of Washington, teacher friends confirm that they have wound up “teaching the test,” to the detriment of other subjects. (One friend is so frustrated that she gets nearly apoplectic any time “No Child” is mentioned.) At the very least, the program warrants a thorough overhaul.

And so, too, may Common Core’s quiz. I mean — really! These questions are pretty tough. Consider this one — which, I repeat, fewer than half of the respondents answered correctly:

15) When was the Civil War?
A) Before 1750
B) 1750–1800
C) 1800–1850
D) 1850–1900
E) 1900–1950
F) After 1950

So many choices! Is it reasonable to expect children to know the answer? I was 10 years old before I realized that none of my relatives had fought in the Civil War — they all talked about it constantly. And from the way my mother scrimped, I was pretty sure the Great Depression occurred while I was in preschool; it was very much part of my own life story. I’m sure that children today have similar difficulties.

So I propose a few sample questions, in the hope of achieving superior results.

1) During the Second World War, the major enemies of the United States were
A) Godzilla and Megalon
B) Germany and Japan

2) Who were Plato and Aristotle?
A) Greek philosophers
B) The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders

3) Who wrote The Canterbury Tales, a poem in Middle English containing stories told by people on a pilgrimage?
A) Geoffrey Chaucer
B) The Cast of TV’s Ugly Betty

4) The first permanent English colony in North America was
A) Jamestown, Virginia
B) Disneyland

5) Who was the commander of the American army in the Revolutionary War?
A) George Washington
B) Banana

Now don’t you feel smarter?

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Lynda Carter

In street clothes and in person, she’s actually better-looking than this.
Which is, in a way, alarming.

By common consent, attending the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta was for the younger of us CBSers “just like summer camp!” In near-shrieking excitation, we were far from home, we poured on and off of buses to get where we were going, we ate every meal together, and we spent much of every day in a tiny cabin.

That was the anchor booth, a flimsy construction that jutted out from a skybox high over the arena. It was dark there and very cold, air-conditioned to sub-Arctic degrees to counter the heat of our lights and cameras. I’d sit in the back, next to the Teleprompter operator, because my job, so far as I understood it, entailed making sure he had the right copy on his screen. This was pure boondoggle, and four years later, the network wouldn’t countenance the inclusion of extraneous personnel: we’d had budget cuts, and we were leaner and meaner. Mostly meaner. (By then, I had a more exalted title, and my presence at both parties’ conventions wasn’t questioned. But in 1988, I was a mere production assistant, and the trip was a reward for services already delivered, not a necessity to the coverage at hand.) To make me look more useful, Dan Rather used to ask for coffee even when he didn’t want any.

There were all kinds of celebrities in Atlanta that week, and some of them deigned to visit the anchor booth. The great Eric Sevareid was part of our team, offering analysis but not commentary; the Rev. Jesse Jackson came by for an interview, wrapping my hand in his and calling me “friend” for the first time. (It’s a measure of his charm that, even though you know he says that mostly to avoid having to learn your name, you really do think it would be nice to be his friend.) And then one day, Lynda Carter walked in.

A decade after the demise of her television show, Wonder Woman, she was still jaw-droppingly gorgeous, her astonishing smile beaming effortlessly as she “toured” the booth. I wasn’t a huge fan of Wonder Woman, but she acquitted herself well, and it’s a shame she hasn’t found more acting work since: she had potential. She remains a hero to plenty of women I know — including several of my colleagues in the booth that day. Yet everyone kept whispering, “What’s she doing here? What’s she doing at the Convention?”

The real answer was that her husband, attorney Robert Altman, was being groomed as a potential successor to party nabobs such as Clark Clifford, his mentor. But I saw another solution.

“Isn’t it obvious?” I said. “She’s a super delegate.”

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